President Donald Trump once again dodged any public comment on Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s much-maligned human rights record after their meeting Monday, even as several U.S. families claimed the White House has ignored their pleas to intervene in the cases of at least three wrongfully imprisoned Americans.
One of them is 17-year-old Ahmed Hassan of Atlantic City, N.J., who the families say was beaten and dragged from his home in Zagazig, Egypt on Dec. 1, 2016, denied adequate legal representation and sentenced to one year in jail – all for protesting the arrest of his uncle on a minor building code violation.
Two others are Mustafa Kassem, a 52-year-old paralegal, and Ahmed Etwiy, a 23-year-old student, both of New York, who are spending their fourth year in prison on protest charges, according to a March 28 letter that the families sent to Trump in advance of his meeting with Sisi.
In their letter, obtained by POLITICO, family representatives asked Trump to confront Sisi during their meeting and demand that he “immediately release all unjustly detained American citizens,” including the three men.
To improve its chances of success, the letter to Trump was written using buzzwords that would appeal to his “Make America First” worldview and his belief that the U.S. must project strength on the global stage, according to a spokesman, Mohamed Soltan, an American human rights advocate who himself was imprisoned in Egypt for 22 months.
“During your upcoming meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, we believe that Americans should come first,” they wrote. “Egypt is counting on America to be weak. We are counting on you to show America’s strength.”
“These Americans – our family members – are in prison for exercising their right to free speech,” declared the family members – Hassan’s father Mohamed Mustafa, Kassem’s sister Eman Kassem and Etwiy’s mother, Dr. Nagwa El Kordy. “They are among at least 60,000 political prisoners in Egypt facing similarly unjust imprisonment. This is totally outrageous. Mr. President, we believe in your commitment to represent Americans first and the values America holds dear, especially Freedom.”
The families were trying to work internal channels in the hope that Trump would agree to press the issue with Sisi, even after a White House statement released Friday that didn’t mention human rights while praising Sisi for fighting terrorism and improving Egypt’s economy. The families said White House officials confirmed that the letter was received.
But during his public comments after meeting Monday, Trump didn’t mention human rights — only that “We are very much behind” Sisi, especially due to his commitment to counterterrorism.
A senior administration official told POLITICO that Trump’s failure to mention the issue doesn’t mean it’s not a priority for the administration.
“The president and President el-Sisi had a very positive conversation that will move this relationship forward,” the official said. “Human rights have always been a topic of conversation with Egypt, and we will continue to engage them on ways to protect human rights. But we will discuss it in a more constructive way that maximizes the likelihood of forward progress.”
“Protecting U.S. citizens is a key priority for the president,” the official added, “and we will engage in whatever way is most constructive to ensure they are protected.”
Nonetheless, when Trump failed even to mention the Americans imprisoned in Egypt, the families were devastated, said Praveen Madhiraju a pro bono lawyer with Pretrial Rights International, who represents Hassan. “Ahmed and these families pleaded for something so basic — for their government to protect them. And now they are in despair.”
Soltan said that the case of Hassan is especially egregious, and that the teenager was laughed at and retaliated against when he told local police that he was an American. As a minor, he is also at some risk of harm because he is sharing the same cell with more than 20 adults, Soltan said.
In a personal letter to Trump, Hassan wrote that he wants to return to America so he can go to college here. “Mr. President, please help me. I want to be with my family and friends. I am proud to be an American. I beg you to defend my right to be free.”
The families didn’t ask that Trump follow the lead of the Obama administration and Congress and condition a hefty portion of the $1.3 billion the U.S. gives to Egypt in foreign military financing on the release of the detained Americans, Soltan said.
But that is a requirement that the State Department can now waive and that it was likely to be one of Sisi’s requests of Trump during the visit, according to Soltan. He added that President Barack Obama would not allow Sisi to visit the White House over that issue, which infuriated the military strongman.
Brian Katulis, an Egypt expert at the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress, said Trump’s failure to even mention the detained Americans — or the tens of thousands of Egyptians similarly imprisoned — was reflective of an administration that aims to “downgrade human rights and issues related to detention” in Egypt.
Egypt has always pressed for a separation of those issues from U.S. funding, said Katulis, a State and Defense department and National Security Council official in the Clinton administration. “What’s different is that this is the first U.S. president to give in to those demands.”
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