UNITED NATIONS — Relatives of a Bethpage man who is on a hunger strike in the same Egyptian prison where the former President Mohammed Morsi was held before his death Monday are renewing their call for their family member’s release — fearing he may suffer the same fate.
"We have constant nightmares about him dying in prison,” said Mustafa Ahmed, who is Moustafa Kassem’s brother-in-law. “He cannot survive there much longer. We pray that he is released and brought home so that he can receive the medical care he needs to save his life."
Ahmed has lobbied federal lawmakers, including Reps. Peter King (R-Seaford) and Thomas Suozzi (D-Glen Cove), written an opinion piece in The New York Times and reached out to the administration of President Donald Trump in an attempt to get Kassem back home to Bethpage, where the two men live. They co-own an auto parts shop in Bay Shore.
Kassem's attorney, Washington-based Praveen Madhiraju, said the family is concerned since Kassem is already medically compromised because he has been on a hunger strike since September. That's when he was sentenced by an Egyptian court to 15 years in prison for his alleged role in support of Morsi and his political party, the Muslim Brotherhood.
The family denies that Kassem supported the now-outlawed political party, saying he was arrested during a sweeping crackdown on dissent in Cairo while he and Ahmed were visiting family in June 2013. Kassem has been imprisoned ever since his arrest that August.
"Moustafa has been enduring similarly neglectful medical care, in the same prison complex, and is also very much at risk of dying,” Madhiraju said. “He needs to be released and given proper medical attention immediately."
Morsi rose to the top of Egyptian politics 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, who was elected in 2012, himself was overthrown a year later, in July 2013, by military commanders — including then-Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who is now the president — and jailed until his death Monday. Morsi collapsed under suspicious circumstances during his trial in Cairo.
Kassem became embroiled in a wave of rough-and-tumble Egyptian politics when military forces cracked down on thousands of people assembled at Rabaa al-Adawiya Square on Aug. 14, 2013, breaking up a protest camp because they were supporting Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Kassem’s family said he was in Egypt at the time of his arrest to visit his wife and children and played no role in the protests. 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 when the crackdown spread far beyond the square.
Ahmed said Kassem showed his U.S. passport to the authorities and they proceeded to beat him before detaining him. He has been in custody ever since and he was sentenced in September after a trial that prosecuted over 700 defendants — giving some the death penalty — and which has 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.”
On Tuesday, Bachelet called for an independent investigation into Morsi's death.
“As former President Mohammed Morsi was in the custody of the Egyptian authorities at the time of his death, the State is responsible for ensuring he was treated humanely and that his right to life and health were respected,” she said in a statement. “Any sudden death in custody must be followed by a prompt, impartial, thorough and transparent investigation carried out by an independent body to clarify the cause of death.”
Madhiraju said he welcomed U.S. intervention on Kassem’s behalf — or for Egyptian authorities to have a change of heart.
"We hope that President Sisi grants Moustafa a release —- on humanitarian or other grounds,” he said. “We and the United States government would very much value such merciful action."