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IMF should determine if former Egyptian prime minister is immune from torture claim, lawyers argue

Mohamed Soltan, a U.S. citizen who became a prominent Egyptian political prisoner, filed a federal lawsuit against the man he says directed his torture over 643 days imprisonment by Cairo's military regime.
Mohamed Soltan, a U.S. citizen who became a prominent Egyptian political prisoner, filed a federal lawsuit against the man he says directed his torture over 643 days imprisonment by Cairo's military regime. (Pete Marovich/For The Washington Post)
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A lawsuit brought by a U.S. citizen who alleges he was tortured while held for 21 months as a political prisoner in Egypt should depend on whether the International Monetary Fund decides the lead defendant has diplomatic immunity, the plaintiff’s lawyers and supporting members of Congress said.

The State Department last month declared that IMF executive board member Hazem el-Beblawi should be immune from a lawsuit brought by Mohamed Soltan, 32, in Washington, D.C., where both now work. Soltan, a human rights advocate, has asked a U.S. court to hold Beblawi and other former Egyptian officials accountable for the bloody August 2013 crackdown on Islamist and liberal dissidents in which thousands were killed under the military government of Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi.

While Egypt and the U.S. government agree on former interim prime minister Beblawi’s diplomatic status, attorneys for Soltan this month asked U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly not to dismiss the case immediately. They said by treaty, Beblawi’s immunity requires “tripartite agreement,” which would include the IMF.

“In the absence of proof of a tripartite agreement to his . . . status — and the evidence all suggests the IMF has not granted and, as a matter of institutional policy and practice, does not grant such status — Beblawi does not have diplomatic status immunity,” wrote Soltan’s lawyers, led by Eric L. Lewis.

That stance has won backing from several members of Congress, including the Senate’s longest-serving active member, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee.

Leahy has asked the State Department to produce the notification from Egypt’s government regarding Beblawi’s designation as its “principal resident representative” to the Washington-based IMF, which monitors the global economy and financial system and provides loans to countries struggling to meet debt obligations. Beblawi, who lives in McLean, was named to the IMF board in 2014.

“The Vienna Convention [diplomatic immunity] serves an important function and should be respected, but neither our government nor the IMF should do anything that would prevent justice in this case that is not required under the treaty,” Leahy said.

“We have a strong interest in seeing people who commit such egregious crimes against American citizens brought to justice. That should be a priority, at the same time that we do so in accordance with the treaty,” the senator said.

Mohamed Soltan, U.S. citizen held as political prisoner, files torture lawsuit against Egypt’s ex-prime minister

IMF spokeswoman Randa Elnagar declined to say whether the fund agreed with the designation, referring questions to Beblawi’s legal adviser, and added, “as this litigation is ongoing, we are not in a position to comment on this case as such, consistent with our standard practice.”

Members of the IMF executive board are elected by the countries they represent, not by the institution.

Beblawi’s counsel and the Egyptian embassy did not respond to requests for comment Monday.

In court filings, Beblawi’s attorneys have moved to dismiss the case and argued against Soltan’s request to pause it to probe his immunity claim.

“This motion should be treated as what it is: a desperate attempt to delay dismissal of a politically motivated lawsuit against a fully accredited and immune diplomat,” wrote Beblawi’s defense, including attorneys Rachel A. Beck and Robert H. Bunzel.

Calling the lawsuit’s assertions “groundless” and “a smokescreen to hide a failed case,” they claimed Soltan filed suit against “the only former Egyptian public official he could find in the United States.” Beblawi’s lawyers said Soltan’s claims — including calling Beblawi his torturer — are unsupported propaganda.

“Plaintiff’s hyperbolic characterizations and baseless theory of conspiracy to fabricate official records have no place in the judicial process, and disrespect the rule of law, the defendant, his lawyers, the Egyptian Embassy, the State Department, and the Court,” Beblawi’s defense wrote.

Egypt tries to silence its critics in the United States by jailing their relatives

An Egyptian American raised mostly in the Midwest, Soltan is seeking damages for being shot, beaten and tortured during 643 days after his arrest in August 2013. A high-profile critic of the Egyptian military government and advocate for Egyptian prisoners, including several American citizens, Soltan alleged he was “targeted” for assassination and “barbaric” abuse because he exposed the regime’s suppression.

The suit asserts Beblawi directed and monitored the abuse of Soltan, who worked as a liaison to foreign journalists during protests after the military-led ouster of Egypt’s elected president, Mohamed Morsi.

Days after the lawsuit was filed, five of Soltan’s relatives were forcibly taken by security forces from their homes in June, and his imprisoned father was interrogated in what human rights groups say is a bid to silence him.

Several U.S. lawmakers and human rights groups have accused Egypt of blackmailing the Trump administration by threatening to weaken their strategic partnership in the Middle East unless Washington intervenes to dismiss Soltan’s case. More than a dozen House members and senators have urged the government to release Soltan’s relatives and affirmed Soltan’s right to sue under U.S. law.

“Locking up innocent people as hostages to try to force an American citizen to dismiss a lawsuit filed in a U.S. court, where the Egyptians are perfectly capable of defending themselves, is appalling,” Leahy said in a statement. “That is not what respectable governments do.”

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