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Bethpage man detained in Egypt since 2013 dies while on hunger strike

Moustafa Kassem of Bethpage

Moustafa Kassem of Bethpage Credit: Mostafa Ahmed

UNITED NATIONS — A Bethpage man who had been detained by Egyptian authorities since 2013 and who launched a hunger strike protesting his conviction on charges that he and his supporters said were bogus has died in Cairo while in custody, his attorney and U.S. officials said.

The death of Moustafa Kassem, who had both American and Egyptian citizenship, was announced by his Washington-based attorney, Praveen Madhiraju of Pretrial Rights International. And it comes despite efforts on Kassem's behalf by top U.S. officials, including Vice President Mike Pence.

“I’m deeply saddened to learn today of the death of U.S. citizen Moustafa Kassem, who had been imprisoned in Egypt since 2013,” said Assistant Secretary of Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker at a briefing in Washington Monday. “His death in custody was needless, tragic, and avoidable. We send our sincere condolences to Mr. Kassem’s wife and family at this painful time. I’ll continue to raise our serious concerns over human rights and Americans detained in Egypt at every opportunity, as will the entire team at the Department of State.”

Officials at Egypt's mission to the UN could not be reached for comment.

Madhiraju had represented Kassem on behalf of his family on Long Island, including his wife and two children in Bethpage. But Kassem, 54, also received bipartisan support for his release from Long Island-based federal lawmakers — Reps. Peter King (R-Seaford) and Thomas Suozzi (D-Glen Cove).

“We are extremely saddened by the tragic death of Moustafa Kassem, a resident of Bethpage who had been wrongfully held in Egyptian prison for the last six years. Moustafa was a father of two and small business owner, who despite our repeated attempts to secure his release through letters and communications with the Department of State and Egyptian government, remained imprisoned," the congressmen said in a statement.

“Today, Egyptian-American Moustafa Kassem passed away after more than six years of unjust detention and negligent medical care in Egypt,” read a statement from Pretrial Rights International. “The immediate cause of death is believed to be heart failure, though an autopsy is being scheduled.”

Kassem, who went on a hunger strike in September 2018 to protest his conviction and 15-year prison term, had written at least two letters to President Donald Trump, his March 8, 2019, letter saying that he was “cognizant that such a strike may cost me my life.”

Kassem and his family said that the former auto shop owner was in the wrong place at the wrong time when he was arrested by Egyptian authorities during a crackdown on dissent following the overthrow in 2013 of then-Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi.

Military forces detained and dispersed thousands of people assembled at Rabaa al-Adawiya Square on Aug. 14, 2013, and broke up a protest camp because they were supporting Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader who was elected in June 2012, according to media and independent expert reports.

Morsi rose to the top of Egyptian politics and was elected president in June 2012 in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, the wave of anti-authoritarian protests across the Middle East that toppled several longtime leaders, including Hosni Mubarak, who was president of Egypt for three decades until he stepped down in February 2011 in response to popular demand.

But Morsi himself, considered the first democratically elected Egyptian president, was overthrown a year later by military commanders — including then-General Sisi — and jailed. The Muslim Brotherhood is now outlawed, and Morsi himself collapsed and died last June as he stood on trial in a Cairo courtroom.

Human Rights Watch issued a report one year after the violent crackdown on dissidents in Rabaa al-Adawiya Square, which occurred several weeks after Morsi’s ouster, and said the “indiscriminate and deliberate use of lethal force resulted in one of the world’s largest killings of demonstrators in a single day in recent history.” The report said between 817 and 1,000 people were killed.

Kassem’s brother in law, Mostafa Ahmed of Bethpage, who was with Kassem when he was detained, said the pair were in Egypt at the time of his arrest to visit Kassem’s wife and children, and that neither of them played a role in the protests. Relatives were not available for comment Monday.

They said Kassem, who was due to fly back to the United States 12 days later, had gone to a shopping mall to change currency but was captured during a sweep when the crackdown spread far beyond the square.

Ahmed has said that Kassem showed his U.S. passport to the authorities and they proceeded to beat him before detaining him.

In September 2018, Kassem was convicted along with over 700 other defendants and sentenced to 15 years in prison — some were given death sentences — in a trial that had been criticized by human rights groups and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet.

“The conduct of the trial in the Cairo Criminal Court has been widely criticized,” Bachelet said at the time. “And rightly so. The 739 people were tried en masse, and were not permitted individual legal representation before the court. In addition, the accused were not given the right to present evidence in their defense, and the prosecution did not provide sufficient evidence to prove individual guilt. The evident disregard of basic rights of the accused places the guilt of all those convicted in serious doubt. In particular, the 75 death sentences affirmed yesterday, if implemented, would represent a gross and irreversible miscarriage of justice.”

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