“Once the Department of State determines an individual’s diplomatic status, courts must not look behind the certification to perform their own analysis,” Justice Department civil division attorneys wrote, after obtaining an extension from a January court deadline to permit the team of Biden Secretary of State Antony Blinken to review its predecessor’s treatment of the case.
The U.S. government said it did not take a position on the merits of Soltan’s allegations, nor on whether Beblawi could be sued anew since abruptly quitting the IMF and leaving the United States at the end of October.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said it is “disappointing” that Beblawi was found immune from U.S. legal process in a case in which he was accused of authorizing the torture of an American citizen.
“The Egyptian Government could have waived immunity, but instead chose impunity for Mr. Beblawi, and on top of that they arrested Mr. Soltan’s relatives in Egypt to try to force him to drop his lawsuit,” Leahy said in an emailed statement. “This is what one would expect of a criminal enterprise, not a government that receives billions of dollars in U.S. aid.”
The Egyptian Embassy in Washington and lawyers for Beblawi did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Attorneys for Beblawi cited a U.S. certification of immunity in moving last July to have the case dismissed. They said that they received the notice and a State Department diplomatic note, and that the Egyptian government, through its embassy, said: “Mr. El Beblawi has immunity from suit, not only by virtue of his current diplomatic status, but also personal immunity due to his official position of Prime Minister of Egypt at the time of the events cited.”
The U.S. “statement of interest” in Soltan’s case comes as some Democratic lawmakers have also criticized the State Department’s February approval of a $197 million sale of missiles and related equipment to Egypt as running counter to President Biden’s promise to focus more heavily on human rights in foreign policy than his predecessor did.
During the 2020 presidential campaign, Biden tweeted about Soltan’s case, saying that torturing Egyptian activists and “threatening their families is unacceptable.” Biden also said there would be “no more blank checks for Trump’s ‘favorite dictator,’ ” referring to Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi by the moniker President Donald Trump once reportedly gave him.
The Beblawi decision also provides a hint of the State Department’s thinking as it weighs a separate request from Saudi Arabia to declare Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman immune from a separate federal lawsuit. The suit accuses him of targeting for assassination a former top intelligence officer now living in exile in Canada, Saad Aljabri, who could disclose damaging secrets about the prince’s ascent to power.
A State Department recommendation could also lead to the dismissal of the prince as a defendant in other cases filed in the United States, including ones accusing him of directing the death and dismemberment of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018; and of targeting a hack-and-leak operation to discredit an Al Jazeera news anchor, Ghada Oueiss, in retaliation for her critical reports on Mohammed and the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates.
Human rights activists and lawmakers say Egypt has repeatedly targeted Soltan’s family to silence his criticisms of Sissi and blackmailed the U.S. government by threatening to weaken Egypt’s strategic partnership with Washington in the Middle East.
Soltan blasted U.S. authorities Friday for “kowtowing to diplomatic pressure and legal technicalities” and said the decision signaled to victims a “back-to-business-as-usual policy with dictators.”
“This attempt to insulate a torturer from accountability in U.S. courts is a blank check to Egypt’s dictator and wholly antithetical to the Biden administration’s stated commitments,” Soltan said. He called the decision an error in legal interpretation, policy and moral judgment that will embolden authoritarian regimes to target human rights defenders abroad and endanger his and others’ families in their home countries.
“Mr. Blinken invited families of hostages to call him out if the State Department is not doing right by them. And it is in that spirit that I express my deepest disappointment with yesterday’s filing.
Soltan’s lawyers won court approval to formally respond by April 19.
A State Department spokesman said that the United States repeatedly has made clear its serious concern about arbitrary arrests and detentions in Egypt, and that Blinken has stated that human rights would be central to the U.S.-Egypt relationship.
“The Department has not taken any position on the merits of the underlying lawsuit. The Department of State confirmed the immunity that Mr. El Beblawi enjoyed based upon his position at the time the suit was filed,” the spokesman said.
Foreign governments and leaders are typically immune from civil actions in U.S. courts. However, Soltan sued under the U.S. Torture Victim Protection Act, a 1991 law that allows claims against those allegedly liable for torture or inhumane treatment that takes place anywhere in the world if the defendants are in the United States and are no longer heads of state or government.
Beblawi, who served as prime minister from July 2013 to March 2014, was appointed to the IMF board in 2014 and was living in suburban Northern Virginia just miles from where Soltan settled when the suit was filed.
Soltan, an Egyptian American raised mostly in the Midwest, alleged he was “targeted” for assassination and “barbaric” abuse during 643 days as a political prisoner in Cairo “because he dared to expose to the world the Egyptian military government’s brutal suppression and massacre of peaceful demonstrators.”
Since his arrest in August 2013 at the beginning of the Sissi regime’s massacres in Cairo and suppression of Islamist and liberal dissidents, Soltan has become a high-profile critic of the Egyptian military government and an advocate for prisoners, including several U.S. citizens.
Days after the lawsuit was filed, five of Soltan’s relatives in Egypt were forcibly taken by security forces from their homes and jailed until after the U.S. presidential election, and Soltan’s imprisoned father was interrogated before disappearing from their sight entirely, his lawyers said.
Lawmakers noted last week that the Biden administration formally notified Congress of the potential missile sale Feb. 16, just as news emerged that the Egyptian government had raided the homes of six relatives of Soltan and imprisoned three cousins anew. They were later released.
Independent-media reporting attributed to Egyptian government officials has suggested that an internal tug of war over whether to curry favor with the Biden administration or quash political opponents’ hopes may account in part for the government’s treatment of Soltan’s relatives.
Blinken has publicly denounced such arrests.
The State Department’s annual human rights report, released last week, also condemned the Cairo government for “unlawful or arbitrary killings . . . forced disappearance; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment by the government . . . harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary detention,” and other injustices.
Still, human rights groups say that the Sissi government under a law ratified by Beblawi has arrested tens of thousands of people for political reasons — among them U.S. citizens such as Mustafa Kassem, 54, who died in prison in January 2020.
It has also targeted relatives in Egypt of political opponents, human rights workers, pro-democracy activists and journalists living abroad, arresting them, banning their travel or interrogating them, activists said.
The Justice Department filing said a July 7 State Department certification, granted at Egypt’s request, of Beblawi’s immunity effective as of Nov. 2, 2014, when he assumed his IMF position, was conclusive and consistent with the president’s constitutional authority, department policy and United Nations agreements, although not dependent on the last.
The department said that given binding diplomatic obligations and long-standing foreign expectations of the United States as host to the United Nations and related entities, “disregarding” the State Department certification of Beblawi’s or any other foreign representative’s “diplomatic status would seriously damage U.S. foreign policy interests.”