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State Department Calls American's Death In Egyptian Prison Tragic


An American citizen has died in an Egyptian prison. The State Department says his death was tragic and avoidable. Egypt has jailed tens of thousands of political prisoners, and Mustafa Kassem was caught up in a crackdown. NPR's Michele Kelemen tells us about him.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: An auto parts dealer from New York, Mustafa Kassem was visiting family in Cairo in 2013 when he was stopped near the scene of a protest. After showing his U.S. passport, he was beaten and dragged away, according to his brother-in-law. Years later, Kassem was convicted in a mass trial. Former political prisoner Mohamed Soltan was in the same prison with Kassem early on in his ordeal.

MOHAMED SOLTAN: We spent about eight months in the same prison together. He was a good man. He was a kind man. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

KELEMEN: Kassem, a diabetic, had been on a hunger strike and reportedly died of heart failure. Soltan, who runs a nonprofit called The Freedom Initiative, says there are tens of thousands of political prisoners in Egypt, including at least seven Americans.

SOLTAN: There's actually been two that have been arrested just in this last year that we've documented. And it's a big middle finger to the United States. This is an ally. This is a country that gets $1.3 billion of our taxpayer dollars.

KELEMEN: Soltan says the Obama administration used that aid as leverage to get him out of prison. In 2017, President Trump, who talks about his good relations with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, helped win the release of Aya Hijazi.

AYA HIJAZI: President Trump boasted that all he needed to get me out of prison was to talk with Sisi. So if that's all it took, like, one more talk would get the others out of prison. These are political charges. These people have not committed any crime.

KELEMEN: She's also now working to advocate on behalf of political prisoners, especially women and children. And while the State Department and other top officials continue to raise human rights concerns with Egypt, Hijazi says President Trump has sent the wrong signals.

HIJAZI: Trump has called Sisi his favorite dictator, and he has praised him several times.

KELEMEN: Senate Democrat Patrick Leahy says he holds Sisi responsible for the death of Mustafa Kassem and says the U.S. can't reward such conduct. Egypt says it's ordered an autopsy. Assistant Secretary of State David Schenker called the death needless, tragic and avoidable.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.


Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.