Recently, Secretary of State John Kerry rightly criticized an Egyptian court’s conviction of three international journalists with al-Jazeera English on blatantly fake charges cooked up for political reasons.
But Kerry failed to mention the equally grim case of an idealistic young American held without trial for nearly a year in Cairo’s horrendous jails. Mohamed Soltan was arrested in August for trying to document the Egyptian military’s crackdown on dissent after last summer’s coup. He has been on a hunger strike since Jan. 26 and is now refusing water.
Early this month, the 26-year-old Ohio State grad appealed to President Obama for help in a moving video smuggled out of prison. Obama and Kerry should watch it. If they don’t intervene quickly, this patriotic American could die.
The young man’s story mirrors the tragedy that has befallen Egypt since the failed Arab Spring. After the fall of Hosni Mubarak in 2011, Soltan’s father, an Islamic scholar and Muslim Brotherhood member, returned to Egypt to teach. Soltan, who was never a Brotherhood member, traveled to Cairo a year later to help his mother through cancer treatment, and he found a job there.
But after the military deposed an elected government led by the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, Soltan volunteered to speak to members of the international media at a huge anti-coup protest encampment. In emotional interviews with ABC News and Voice of America, he insisted that one didn’t have to like Morsi to oppose the ouster of an elected president. “We are pro-democracy,” he said. To get rid of Morsi, “you wait until his term is done” and then vote for someone else.
Egypt’s security services thought otherwise. They broke up the protest, killing hundreds of demonstrators and arresting thousands. Soltan was shot in the arm, jailed and falsely accused of belonging to a “banned organization” — meaning the Muslim Brotherhood.
Soltan was also charged with “misinforming the media,” a charge used by the security services to arrest journalists or commentators whose reports don’t toe the government line.
Since his arrest, Soltan has been stripped, beaten and denied proper medical attention. When his shoulder wound began oozing, a cellmate “operated” on it without anesthesia, using pliers and a straight razor. Soltan is now in a prison hospital’s intensive-care unit. His sister, Hanaa Soltan, a clinical social worker in Washington, told me, “His condition is critical.”
So far, the State Department has treated the case as a normal judicial affair, which typically requires U.S. consular officials to visit periodically and monitor an imprisoned American’s status and health. The problem is that, in today’s Egypt, the once-proud judiciary has become a political tool.
The case of al-Jazeera journalists is a perfect example. The three — all of whom have excellent international reputations — were sentenced to at least seven years in prison for “conspiring with the Muslim Brotherhood to broadcast false reports.” Yet one of them, Australian Peter Greste, had spent only a few days in the Arab world before being arrested; another, an Egyptian-Canadian, is a self-styled liberal who drinks. To claim they were linked to the Muslim Brotherhood is absurd.
When asked to show the false news reports supposedly taken from the men’s laptop computers, the prosecution showed a film of Greste’s family vacation and a news conference in Kenya. In other words, the whole case was a farce — part of a government effort to intimidate critics.
Equally farcical have been the trials of the bloggers and young liberals who led the original Tahrir Square rebellion, as well as the mass death sentences meted out, hundreds at a time, to members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
So it’s understandable that in his poignant video, Soltan wonders aloud why American officials aren’t trying harder to free him.
“Before getting arrested,” he says, “I was documenting crimes against justice ... against democracy in Egypt — trying to share my American principles with young Egyptians.” As a student, he campaigned for Obama in the belief that his candidacy “meant every American irrespective of skin color ... was equal.” Now, he added, “I ask my government ... has the life of an American become worthless, or is it because my name is Mohamed?”
Has Soltan’s dual U.S. and Egyptian citizenship colored Washington’s efforts to help him? One has to wonder. Unlike the U.S. government, top Australian, Canadian, British, and Dutch officials have been vocal in recent cases where their citizens are falsely accused or convicted in Egypt.
Yet Kerry, having visited Cairo before the Al Jazeera verdicts and having agreed to restore frozen U.S. military aid, was clearly upset by the outcome. “Injustices like these simply cannot stand,” he insisted. He urged the Egyptian government to review “all the political sentences” of the last few years.
So why not use Washington’s leverage to seek the release of a seriously ill American whose crime was to believe in American values? Before it’s too late.
TRUDY RUBIN is a columnist and board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.