Kassem, who was born in Egypt but was a naturalized U.S. citizen from Bethpage, N.Y., was detained at a shopping center in Cairo in August 2013 while visiting family members. He was held for five years in pretrial detention. Then, in a mass trial in September 2018, he was found guilty of attempting to overthrow the government of President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi and sentenced to serve 15 years.
After his sentencing, Kassem wrote a letter to Trump begging him to intervene. “I am putting my life in your hands,” he wrote in the letter, which was smuggled out of the Egyptian prison where he was being held.
He also declared a liquid-only hunger strike at that time. Kassem recently stopped taking liquids and died Monday, according to Pretrial Rights International, an advocacy group.
Egypt’s chief prosecutor opened an investigation into his death this week.
Trump has publicly embraced Sissi and welcomed him to the White House, even as human rights activists warn that Sissi’s government has detained tens of thousands of people, including journalists and activists, clamping down on freedom of expression and dissent.
In their letter, Van Hollen and Leahy accuse Trump of emboldening Sissi’s crackdown on Americans and Egyptians.
“U.S. efforts to secure the release of Mustafa Kassem, or other Americans detained in Egypt, are grossly undermined when you refer to President Sisi as a ‘good man’ and your ‘favorite dictator,’ ” the letter says. “Statements such as these, which contravene our nation’s values, embolden President Sisi to unlawfully detain and mistreat Americans, and engage in the brutal suppression of the rights of his own people.”
Trump has repeatedly claimed freeing Americans held abroad is a priority for his administration. But at least six Americans and two U.S. permanent residents are “unjustly detained” in Egypt, according to the senators’ letter.
In January 2018, Vice President Pence told reporters he had raised concerns about Kassem’s imprisonment with Sissi. But the New York City taxi driver with two young children was never released.
In the summer, while on a trip to the Middle East and North Africa, Van Hollen said he met with Sissi and raised the issue of Kassem’s detention with him directly.
“He claimed that there were reasons for the detention. I pressed him on what the reasons were, and he didn’t have any good answers,” Van Hollen said in a phone interview with The Post. “And he said he would look into it, but there was no follow-up.”
“It’s pretty clear that President Sissi and the Egyptian regime believe they can get away with the detention and death of Americans,” Van Hollen added.
When it comes to sanctions, he said, “the administration should consider everybody involved, right to the top.”
Other lawmakers have also condemned Kassem’s killing. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) tweeted it is “completely outrageous that this happened at the hands of a government that is supposed to be a partner.”