By William J. Furney
Mustafa Kassem is a taxi driver in New York who was visiting his wife and young son and daughter in Cairo, Egypt, in the summer of 2013 when events quickly overtook him and he found himself caught up in the frenzy of a military coup and mass protests against the removal of democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi as military chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi swept to power and has remained the head of state ever since.
The 53-year-old, who is diabetic and has heart trouble and who holds both American and Egyptian citizenship, was arrested near protest sites in the Egyptian capital for allegedly attempting to bring down the new government and spent five years in prison awaiting trial. His verdict came last week, in a mass trial of 739 people charged with sedition, 79 of whom were sentenced to death. Kassem received 15 years’ jail and has a decade left to spend behind bars for a crime he says he did not commit. In protest, he has gone on hunger strike.
Kassem’s lawyer, Praveen Madhiraju, executive director of Washington DC-based Pretrial Rights International, which fights to protect the rights of people awaiting trial around the world, said in an exclusive interview with Furney Times that his client’s conviction was a “farce” and that the United States government, which recently lobbied for Kaseem’s release, via a visit by Vice President Mike Pence’s to Cairo during which he met with President el-Sisi, must “demand much more of Egypt”, especially now that the US has resumed billions of dollars in military aid to the north African nation.
What was Mustafa Kassem doing in Egypt in August 2013, when he was arrested?
Mustafa was visiting family — he was there on a tourist visa. It was not an extended stay. He was arrested on August 14, 2013.
Was he in Rabaa Square in Cairo during mass protests against the military coup that toppled Mohamed Morsi?
No, he wasn’t at the square nor involved in the protests at all. He was set to come back to the US — New York — in the next days and was exchanging some money before his travel at a nearby shopping area, which was about 2km away from Rabaa Square.
Had Kassem been doing anything illegal at the time of his arrest, and if so, is there any proof of it?
No — again, he was just visiting family and at the time of arrest, going back to his car after exchanging money at the shopping centre. Also, no individualised proof was offered at trial that showed Mustafa being part of the protest or doing anything illegal.
How long had Kassem lived in the United States?
He has been a citizen since 1992, and in the US for sometime before that.
Why did he return to Egypt and did he intend to go back to the US?
He went to Egypt in June and was set to come back to the US in mid-August.
What is your overall comment about Kassem’s five years in prison awaiting trial for allegedly attempting to overthrow the new el-Sisi government and his recent conviction and sentence of 15 years, meaning he has a decade left to serve?
It’s a farce. He was arrested and beaten for being an American at the wrong place at the wrong time. His brother-in-law was with him at the time. Both are dual citizens. The soldiers who stopped them and asked for ID only beat and arrested Mustafa, who showed his US passport. The whole time, they cursed him as being an American “spy” — of course he is not — and literally stomped on his passport. His brother-in-law showed his Egyptian ID and was allowed to pass.
Have you managed to speak to him since his conviction, and if so, what has he said to you?
His family has seen him and I’ve heard from them. He is distraught and giving up hope. He has started a hunger strike and is adamant about continuing it.
What is Kassem’s health condition now, and has he received any healthcare during his time in prison?
His health is not good. He has been a fairly fragile state for some time, now. In this condition, a hunger strike can have dire consequences. But he is very understandably distraught.
He has received some medical care, but it’s been wholly negligent. He doesn’t have proper medication — at times, prison officials actually rely on his family to bring him insulin, as he’s a diabetic. When family has brought these medications, officials have sometimes confiscated them and thrown them in the garbage. As a result, Mustafa has frequent body tremors and blood-sugar spikes exceeding 600. These are alarming signs for a diabetic.
How many days has he been on hunger strike as of now, and how is he coping with it?
Since Sunday. He is angry, distraught and losing hope.
How long do you think he can remain on hunger strike, and is there a possibility that the prison authorities will start to force-feed him?
He will not be able to remain on hunger strike for long. Egyptian authorities are responsible for his current condition and all consequences that come from it. Egypt needs to grant him a medical or other release immediately.
US Vice President Mike Pence lobbied el-Sisi to release Kassem, during a recent trip to Cairo, but his pleas went unheard. What is your view of the US’ subsequent resumption of billions of dollars in military aid to Egypt?
The Trump administration has offered Egypt a gravy train and sought little in return. It’s time for the Trump administration to demand much more of Egypt, including freeing Mustafa and actually improving on its disgraceful human rights record.
What would you say to the Egyptian authorities about Kaseem’s case?
Egyptian authorities should immediately release Mustafa or they will 100 percent own anything that happens to him.