After spending much of his time advocating for others, Soltan has recently sought justice for himself. Soltan filed suit in U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia this month, alleging that he was “targeted” for assassination and “barbaric” abuse over more than 21 months in prison because he “dared to expose to the world the Egyptian military government’s” suppression of Islamist and liberal dissidents that led to massacres in Cairo in August 2013.
Lawsuits such as Soltan’s are rare. In a twist, the man who Soltan accuses of directing his torture in Egypt has moved to the D.C. area, putting him under federal court jurisdiction and living miles away from the man suing him.
Soltan’s 46-page complaint names as a defendant former interim prime minister Hazem el-Beblawi. The suit asserts Beblawi directed and monitored the treatment of Soltan, who worked with protesters after the military-led ouster of Egypt’s elected president, Mohamed Morsi.
Beblawi, an 83-year-old politician and Sorbonne-trained economist, serves on the executive board of the International Monetary Fund in downtown Washington, three blocks from the White House, and lives in McLean, Va. Soltan also lives in Virginia, studies at Georgetown University and works as a human rights advocate for his foundation in Washington.
Foreign governments and leaders are typically immune from civil suits in U.S. courts. However, the Torture Victim Protection Act allows suits 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 no longer heads of state.
“It’s unusual to think that in this day and age in the United States, you could have a scene out of another country and another time, where a torturer and a victim could pass by each other in the street,” said Soltan’s attorney, Eric L. Lewis. “That means Mr. el-Beblawi is amenable to U.S. justice, and that’s what this case is about.”
Beblawi did not respond to a request for comment through the IMF, nor did the Egyptian Embassy in Washington.
Soltan said the government of Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi has crushed dissent and reporting by journalists, part of what he called a resurging tide of injustice and authoritarianism around the globe.
“Living with this is extremely painful,” Soltan said. “Having firsthand knowledge of the level of brutality and inhumanity” that prisoners face, of having freedom, will and dignity “stripped away from you,” he said — “I have to attempt to get some justice.”
Since returning to the United States, Soltan has argued that silence by Washington is taken by regimes as consent, even as Egypt continues to hold five U.S. citizens. He said it is in America’s interest to counter the radicalization of a generation of Egyptian dissidents, who may differ on many fronts but agree on “hatred of the United States” for enabling the government of Sissi.
Soltan’s suit seeks “justice and accountability” under a 1991 U.S. law that permits torture survivors to seek damages from their tormentors under certain circumstances.
The lawsuit also names as “unsued-defendants” President Sissi; Abbas Kamel, a former Sissi chief of staff and now Egyptian intelligence chief; and three former top interior and security ministry leaders. It says they could be served if they travel to the United States.
Soltan was shot in a bloody crackdown by security forces authorized by Beblawi’s cabinet after a military coup ousted Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood supporters, the lawsuit asserts. The brutal sweep of opponents culminated in the mass shooting deaths of nearly 1,000 people on Aug. 14, 2013, and the arrest of tens of thousands of political prisoners, including activists, journalists and political opponents.
Soltan was shot that day and arrested later with three journalists at his family’s home by police looking for his father, a Muslim Brotherhood member and former Morsi deputy minister. Soltan was later held within earshot of beatings of his father, who remains in prison.
The younger Soltan, who is not a member of the brotherhood, was deported on May 30, 2015, after relinquishing his Egyptian citizenship and following Obama administration criticism of his prosecution and appeals for his humanitarian release.
Soltan said he was burned, beaten and repeatedly denied treatment for a bullet wound to his arm. His ribs were broken, metal nails that held his bones together began to tear out of his elbow and skin, and screws shifted near his ulnar nerve, causing “excruciating pain,” the lawsuit asserts.
“What kind of medical attention would you need once you had a bullet in your head?” an Egyptian security officer asked Soltan, who shed 160 of his original 270 pounds on a 15-month hunger strike in Cairo’s Tora prison complex for political prisoners, the lawsuit says. While there, Soltan suffered a pulmonary embolism and at least 12 hypoglycemic comas, the suit asserts.
At one point, it says, two cellmates, both doctors, used pliers and a razor to operate on him without anesthetics or sterilization to prevent further injury, while others held him down. Guards later allegedly gave him razor blades with instructions to slit his wrists vertically, and on another occasion exposed electrical wires in his cell and told him to “make sure you grab [the wires] with two hands,” the suit alleges.
Legal watchers say the Torture Victim Protection Act, the law cited by Soltan, could become an intriguing deterrent for authoritarian leaders who enjoy impunity at home and whom U.S. foreign policy is reluctant to penalize.
Texas law professor Stephen Vladeck has said “the specter of being served with a TVPA claim while on U.S. soil may well be reason enough for [former leaders] to end such trips,” at least until the law’s 10-year statute of limitations expires.
Vladeck referred to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whom the CIA concluded ordered the assassination of Washington Post contributing columnist and Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in 2018. Khashoggi’s death sparked a global outcry but incurred limited legal consequences for senior leaders of the oil-rich kingdom.
“We send a message to the torturers and human rights abusers of Egypt’s corrupt and brutal regime that they cannot commit crimes against humanity and then seek safe haven in the United States and walk the streets of America’s cities with impunity,” said Soltan attorney Lewis, of Lewis Baach Kaufmann Middlemiss.
Lewis added that the IMF’s employment of “a torturer and human rights abuser” of thousands of free speech advocates is “a stain on the organization.”
The IMF declined to comment. The fund’s 24-member executive board meets several times weekly to oversee daily operations and while compensated, directors are chosen by member states. Beblawi has been a director since 2014, and his latest two-year term is set to lapse in October, although it could be extended.
Soltan asserts in his lawsuit that Beblawi authorized the Egyptian cabinet and the then-interior minister to violently disperse the protests. Beblawi later confirmed to Egyptian media that “close to 1,000” deaths resulted, adding, “We expected much more,” the lawsuit says.
Soltan was interrogated by Egypt’s chief of state security prosecutions and singled out for helping foreign media “embarrass Egypt before the world,” for his U.S. citizenship and his father’s status, the suit states.
“They knew who he was,” Lewis said.
Soltan was convicted in a mass trial and sentenced to life in prison after being charged with broadcasting “false news,” spreading “terror,” damaging the state’s prestige and disturbing national and public security.
Soltan is recently married and lives near three of his four siblings. He said he continues to get “calls in the middle in the night” about friends or an uncle arrested; his father punished; and prisoners in cases he is working on — including one who he said recently died of medical neglect.
He also still bears burn marks on his neck, bullet scars, and limited strength and motion in his left arm.
But worse, he said, is a “perpetual trauma” that includes nightmares of the inmate guards put in his cell to die beside him, the screams of other prisoners being beaten, and the torture of his father within earshot.
“You don’t get to fully put back the pieces of your life after a horrendous experience like that,” he said in an interview. But Soltan said his father, who knows nothing about the lawsuit, has often sent letters and messages from prison conveying “how extremely proud he is” of their work.
Soltan said, “The fights for human rights, democracy and rule of law are noble fights.”