Tears, tight hugs and cries of “Welcome home” greeted a frail American citizen on his sudden return to the United States on Saturday night after nearly two years spent in an Egyptian jail cell.
It was a surreal homecoming for Mohamed Soltan, 27, a citizen journalist and activist who survived a year-long hunger strike and a life sentence, only to be whisked from his cell and later onto a plane bound for Washington, the product of months of advocacy by his family and quiet, frantic negotiations between the U.S. government and Egypt, his family said.
Soltan, an Ohio State University graduate who was once chubby and energetic, entered the arrivals area of Dulles International Airport on Saturday night in a wheelchair, his frail frame quickly mobbed by family and cheering friends.
He clutched his 1-year-old nephew for the first time and the tears came. Then a fierce embrace from his sisters, and then came the sobs.
In a surprise move, Egyptian authorities on Saturday had quietly shuttled him onto an airplane and sent him home to be with his family in Virginia.
In April, a Cairo court sentenced Soltan to life in prison for his support of the protests that followed the group’s overthrow, including financing a weeks-long sit-in and “spreading false news” in his role as unofficial spokesman of the protest.
It was unclear what ultimately decided Soltan’s release. There was no court ruling to reverse his April sentence to life in prison and no formal announcement of clemency from Egypt’s president.
Soltan’s older sister, Hanaa Soltan, spent most of the past two years leading the family’s activist campaign from her Washington-area home, lobbying U.S. officials and coordinating with lawyers on both sides of the Atlantic to win her brother’s freedom.
Hanaa Soltan said she got word from State Department officials late this week that things “might be moving” but that the release still came as a surprise. Her mother, who has been in Cairo to monitor her son’s case, called early Saturday crying, Hanaa Soltan said. “She’s very excited.”
Mohamed Soltan staged a year-long hunger strike to protest his treatment and spent time in solitary confinement.
His family said that he was in dire health and that he had not received adequate medical care while in prison. Recent photos from a Cairo courtroom showed Mohamed Soltan pale and emaciated, and addressing the court while lying on a stretcher.
Egypt’s Interior Ministry was unavailable for comment Saturday, and the U.S. Embassy in Cairo declined to comment. But a senior State Department official said: “The U.S. government welcomes the release of American citizen Mohamed Soltan.
“We believe this step brings a conclusion to this case, and we are glad Mr. Soltan will now be reunited with his family in the United States.”
Speaking to the state-run MENA news agency, Egypt’s general prosecutor said Mohamed Soltan would serve the rest of his sentence in the United States. That seemed unlikely, however. Spreading false news is not a crime under U.S. law.
The Egyptian government forced Mohamed Soltan to renounce his dual Egyptian citizenship as a condition of his release, his family said.
At first, he resisted. It’s his identity, he told his lawyers, according to his brother-in-law Waleed Nassar. But finally the lawyers convinced him.
It was just a few weeks ago when “whispers” of a breakthrough began to snowball, and “it seemed like a real possibility,” that release was imminent, Nasser said.
Just over a week ago, U.S. State Department officials asked Hanaa Soltan to transfer money for Mohamed Soltan’s ticket home.
And at 4 a.m. Saturday, Hanaa Soltan was awoken by a phone call — and then a voice mail. It was her brother’s excited voice. He was free. He was at the Cairo airport. He was coming home.
As his family wheeled him slowly through the faces and balloons, shouts and cheers, Soltan appeared overwhelmed at moments on Saturday night, and his family urged the crowd of friends and supporters to give him air.
Earlier Saturday morning, he had spoken to his siblings in Virginia by phone from an airport in Germany, where he was changing planes, still seemingly disbelieving that he was free; that all of this was real.
He had worried, jokingly — his family thinks — that the plane might get shot down, and that he still might not make it home.
Hanaa Soltan said that the road to recovery might be a long one.
“We got to get him medical care. We don’t know what kind of condition he’s in,” she said. “It’s one day at a time.”
Cunningham reported from Cairo.