The State Department has declared that a former Egyptian leader now serving on the executive board of the International Monetary Fund should be immune from a federal lawsuit brought by a U.S. citizen seeking to hold him liable for torture, according to court filings Friday.
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 a lawsuit from Mohamed Soltan, 32. Since the suit was filed by Soltan, a Washington-based human rights advocate who was imprisoned for 21 months in Cairo, Egyptian authorities have imprisoned several of his Egyptian relatives, in what human rights groups say is a bid to silence him.
“If the State Department had any discretion here and they chose to use it to protect this guy, that would be outrageous,” said Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), a former State Department appointee who spearheaded a letter from 11 House lawmakers urging the Egyptian government to release Soltan’s relatives and affirming Soltan’s right to sue under U.S. law.
“If I were at the State Department, my message to the Egyptians would be, ‘You can challenge this case in a lawful manner and ask us for help, or you can kidnap the relatives of American citizens, in which case you can go to hell,” Malinowski said. He cited U.S. law barring arms sales to governments engaged in a pattern of intimidation against American citizens.
Attorneys for Beblawi disclosed a U.S. certification of immunity in a filing Friday afternoon as part of a motion to dismiss a lawsuit filed last month by Soltan, who was released in 2015 and has become vocal advocate for Egyptian prisoners, including several American citizens.
Foreign governments and leaders are typically immune from civil actions in U.S. courts. However, Soltan cited the U.S. Torture Victim Protection Act, a 1991 law that 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 or government.
Soltan said he would continue fighting his case until justice is achieved.
“It’s unconscionable to see my own government try to run interference on behalf of my torturer instead of protecting its own citizen,” Soltan said. “And in doing so, they have put my family and me at greater risk of harm...This is far from over, we knew it was going to be a long fight, and a blow like this isn’t going to knock us out of our pursuit of justice. ”
In a memorandum dated July 7, Clifton C. Seagroves, principal deputy director of the State Department’s office of foreign missions, stated that its records indicate that Beblawi “is notified to the Department as assuming his duties as the principal resident representative” of Egypt to the IMF “effective November 2, 2014,” qualifying him as a diplomatic envoy per United Nations agreements. The department notice, included in a court filing by Beblawi, said that under diplomatic convention he enjoys “full immunity” from criminal, civil and administrative actions in the United States.
Soltan lead attorney Eric L. Lewis called the State Department document “highly unusual.” Beblawi had claimed immunity on several grounds but never before on the basis of being IMF principal resident representative, Lewis said, adding that it appeared the department retroactively recognized Beblawi at Egypt’s demand.
“We are investigating the circumstances here and whether this was some retroactive designation to try to prevent his accountability in Court,” Lewis said. “We will continue to fight for justice.”
A spokesperson for the Egyptian Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.
A State Department spokesperson said, “The welfare of all U.S. citizens overseas, especially those detained or incarcerated, remains a top priority for the State Department. We are not going to comment further on this pending legal matter.”
Beblawi attorney Timothy M. Broas said in the filing that his defense recently received a copy of the notice and accompanying State Department diplomatic note. The response came after Broas told the court this month that the Egyptian government through its Washington embassy on June 21 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.”
U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly of Washington, D.C., has given Soltan until July 28 to respond to Beblawi’s bid to dismiss the case.
Earlier this month, lead Soltan attorney Eric L. Lewis called Egypt’s actions “outrageous” in comments to Foreign Policy magazine, which quoted him as saying “[Torture] is a breach of international law. [This request] is basically an attempt by the Egyptians to call in a political favor and have the United States give a free pass to torture. That is contrary to law and contrary to our values.”
Senate Foreign Relations Committee members Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) sent a private letter to Egypt’s ambassador urging Egypt to “halt its harassment” and intimidation of the Soltan family, the magazine reported.
An Egyptian American raised mostly in the Midwest, Soltan is seeking damages for being shot, beaten and tortured during 643 days as a political prisoner in Cairo.
Since his arrest in August 2013, Soltan has become a high-profile critic of the Egyptian military government, and he alleged in his lawsuit he was “targeted” for assassination and “barbaric” abuse because he exposed the regime’s suppression of Islamist and liberal dissidents that led to massacres in Cairo in August 2013.
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 last month, and his imprisoned father was interrogated, his lawyers told the court.
“There is no doubt that the government is holding my five apolitical cousins and dad hostage to pressure me into silence,” Soltan said this month. “The ransom is dropping my lawsuit. They told my family so.”
Human rights activists say that the Sissi government has arrested tens of thousands of people for political reasons — among them U.S. citizens such as Mustafa Kassem, 54, an auto parts dealer from New York who died in an Egyptian prison in January.
Relatives of more than two dozen political opponents, human rights workers, pro-democracy activists and journalists living abroad have been arrested in Egypt, slapped with travel bans or hauled into security offices for interrogation.
Mohamed Lotfy, executive director for the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, has said the government’s message is, “ ‘We are watching you. We might not be able to harm you, but we can do worse by harming your relatives.’ It’s a very powerful tool.”
In a diplomatic note filed by Beblawi’s defense, the State Department said it certified Beblawi’s immunity after receiving three diplomatic notes from Egypt’s embassy. The certification also came one day after the department announced Egypt’s release of another dual Egyptian American citizen from New Jersey, medical student Mohamed Amashah, who was held a prisoner for 486 days on political charges.
Sudarsan Raghavan in Cairo and Carol Morello contributed to this report.