Moustafa Kassem: The first US citizen to die in al-Sisi’s prisons

“I want my children to know that I fought tooth and nail for my freedom.”
More than a year ago, an American citizen of Egyptian origin, Moustafa Kassem,
wrote those words in a letter that was leaked from prison in Egypt, announcing he
was starting a hunger strike.
But after a year and several months, Kassem died in prison without achieving his
dream of freedom.
The US State Department said that Kassem died after a long hunger strike, and after
six years imprisoned in Egypt on what he insisted were false charges.
Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker confirmed Moustafa
Kassem’s death to reporters at a briefing, describing it as “needless, tragic and
Moustafa Kassem, 54, a dual Egyptian-American citizen from New York, was arrested
in central Cairo in August 2013 during a bloody crackdown following the military
coup that brought to power Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who was then an army general and is
now the president of Egypt.
Kassem stressed frequently that he had no links to opposition politics and had been
wrongfully detained by Egyptian soldiers who snatched his American passport and
stomped on it on the ground.
After years in dire conditions at a high-security prison, where he said his diabetes and
a heart ailment went largely untreated, he was sentenced to 15 years in September
Soon after that, Mr. Kassem went on the first of several hunger strikes, refusing solid
food for months on end to protest against what he called his unjust imprisonment.
When he started the hunger strike, Kassem wrote that while he knows “full well that I
may not survive,” he had no choice.
“I want my children to know that I fought tooth and nail for my freedom. I want them
to know America is great because our government will fight tooth and nail for its
Mohamed Soltan, another US citizen who was detained in the same crackdown in
Egypt, was at the same prison with Kassem before he was released in 2015. Now, he
advocates for other political prisoners in Egypt.
“Moustafa was as apolitical as it gets,” said Soltan. “He was just a bystander who got
picked up, wrong place, wrong time. It’s ridiculous that he has died.”
Roughly 60,000 people have been imprisoned on political charges in Egypt since al-
Sisi came to power in 2013, including 20 US citizens. At least seven Americans are
currently being held.

Kassem is the first of US citizens to die in custody in Egypt.
The death last year of Mohamed Morsi, the democratically elected president ousted
by al-Sisi who collapsed in court after years of ill health, brought fresh attention to
persistent accusations of gross medical negligence by Egypt’s prison authorities.
For more than six years, Moustafa Kassem pinned his hopes for release on American
officials using US aid or political support for the al-Sisi regime to obtain his freedom.
But relatives say he became disillusioned.
In April 2017, Mr. Trump pressed the Egyptians to release Aya Hijazi, an American
aid worker imprisoned in Egypt. She was quickly brought to the White House amid
considerable fanfare.
The following year, days after he was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment along with
700 other defendants, Mr. Kassem wrote to Mr. Trump to petition him for help.
“Like you, I’m from New York,” he said in the handwritten letter, which was
smuggled out of the maximum-security prison, Tora. “I am going on hunger strike
knowing full well that I may not survive it,” he wrote.
The letter finished: “I am putting my life in your hands.”
The Working Group on Egypt, a bipartisan group of foreign affairs experts, raised Mr.
Kassem’s case in a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in June, warning that he
was a diabetic with a heart condition who was in imminent danger of death.
Mr. Pompeo responded that the well-being of detained American citizens was a “top
priority” for him.
“I am deeply saddened to learn today of the death of US citizen Moustafa Kassem
who’d been imprisoned in Egypt,” David Schenker said at a Monday news briefing.
“His death in custody was needless, tragic and avoidable.”
Moustafa Kassem is the first US citizen to die in al-Sisi prisons, but his is the fifth
death in one month in detention facilities in Egypt. His death comes amid a hunger
strike initiated by at least 300 political prisoners in the infamous Scorpion Prison in
There are at least seven US citizens in al-Sisi’s prisons, including Reem Mohamed
Desouky who started a hunger strike two weeks ago.