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US concern rings hollow

Kristen McTighe, CairoApril 12, 2015

The sentencing of Egyptian-American activist Mohammed Soltan to life in prison has drawn condemnation. Critics have accused Washington of putting a strategic alliance with Egypt before human rights.

Archivbild 2013 Verurteilung von Mursi-Anhängern 02.12.2014
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/Khalil Hamra

He was once a brawny, American college student who campaigned for President Barack Obama. Today, he's a frail and emaciated prisoner condemned to life in an Egyptian jail.

The sentencing of Egyptian-American activist Mohammed Soltan on Saturday to life in prison on a raft of terror-related charges has been condemned by human rights activists and critics of US policy in Egypt, who say the government has failed to hold Egypt accountable for increasingly repressive policies. The ruling came just days after the Obama administration announced the reinstatement of military aid to Egypt, suspended after the deadly crackdown on dissent following the country's 2013 military coup.

Arrested at his home in August 2013, days after the bloody dispersal of a protest camp supporting Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, Soltan's case first garnered attention after he began a hunger strike 14 months ago. The protest continues; photos smuggled from prison have shown Soltan gaunt and unconscious, with blood dripping from the corner of his mouth.

Judge Mohamed Nagy Shehata delivered the verdict in the absence of all defendants, according to Sara Mohamed, a relative of Soltan in Cairo who was present in court. Some foreign journalists were banned from entering the courtroom.

Mohammed Badie
Badie was sentenced to death on Saturday for inciting violenceImage: El-Shahed/AFP/Getty Images

Shehata began the trial, in which he ratified 14 death sentences and handed out life sentences to at least five journalists, by reciting a Quranic verse advocating amputations and crucifixion for outlaws.

Among those sentenced to death was Mohammed Badie, leader of the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.

US concern rings hollow

In a statement following the verdict, the US embassy in Cairo said it remained "gravely concerned" about the 27-year-old dual Egyptian-American citizen and the outcome of his case.

"We will continue to monitor his case closely and to provide him with all possible support," the statement read. "His health and wellbeing remain of particular concern and remain a top priority to us."

Those words rang hollow for many, coming just days after Obama called Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi to inform him that the White House was lifting executive holds that have been in place since October 2013 on the delivery of F-16 aircraft, Harpoon missiles and M1A1 tanks. A White House spokesman also said the military aid will no longer require a so-called "democracy certification" in the legislation sent to Congress.

In 2014, Judge Shehata also sentenced Australian journalist Peter Greste and Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy to seven years in prison, while their Egyptian colleague Baher Mohammed received 10 years in jail.

That verdict was also seen as a humiliating chide to American attempts to moderate Egypt's repressive crackdown on dissent, issued just one day after a meeting between al-Sissi and US Secretary of State John Kerry that signaled that ties with Egypt were moving closer to normalcy.

Ägypten John Kerry in Kairo 13.09.2014
Kerry (left) met with al-Sissi in Cairo last September to reinforce bilateral tiesImage: Reuters/B. Smialowski

Supporters within the US government of restoring full US military aid to Egypt say upholding the strategic alliance trumps all other concerns in the region. The threat of "Islamic State" militants has engulfed neighboring Libya and continues to wreak havoc in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, as a regional proxy war intensifies in nearby Yemen.

"We encourage the government of Egypt to continue its democratic process, but Egypt is also a strong regional ally," said Representative Mac Thornberry, the Republican chairman of the US House Armed Services Committee, in a statement following the decision to fully restore military aid. "Maintaining that relationship must be a priority for the US."

'Shortsighted and narrow policy'

But critics have said that the resumption of military aid, despite the jailing of US citizens and other human rights abuses, appears to show that the government is returning to its old policy of supporting authoritarian regimes in the name of security.

"It is a shortsighted and narrow policy that does not advance US interests in a lasting relationship with a stable and successful Egypt," said Tamara Cofman Wittes, Director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. She also served as deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs from 2009 to 2012, coordinating US policy on democracy and human rights in the Middle East for the State Department.

"The United States has repeatedly shown that in the case of Egypt it will not put bilateral cooperation and especially military and intelligence cooperation at risk for the sake of human rights," said Cofman Wittes. "This case is particularly disturbing, not just because it's another mass trial with severe sentences based on scant evidence, but because it's a US citizen whose crime seems to be that his father is a political opponent of the regime."

Soltan's father Salah, a prominent Muslim Brotherhood member, was among the 14 men sentenced to death on Saturday.

'Idealistic youth' with dreams of 'changing the world'

Soltan's family and supporters have also criticized the US for not doing enough to help its own citizen. Embassy and government officials have said they have raised the case with Egyptian officials and are doing all they can, but they have been unsuccessful in their attempts to secure Soltan's release on medical grounds.

"Mohammed would always say, 'God, it would be so great to see my Egyptian identity enjoy as much privilege and freedom as my American identity has,'" said Hanaa Soltan, Mohammed's sister, speaking with DW in March. "He would always look around at our little cousins in Egypt and wonder what would have become of them if they had had half the opportunities we had had growing up in the US."

His sister said he had returned to Egypt after the 2011 revolution with idealistic dreams of helping to build a freer and more just Egypt, describing him as part of Egypt's idealistic youth who dream of changing the world.

"He was always very much anti-military rule and anti-police brutality. He didn't have any political affiliations," said Hanaa, who lives near Washington. "I know that he had a lot of issues with the way things were done during Morsi's year, but it was just a matter of taking pride in having been part of a revolution that brought about a system that, if you didn't like a president, you could elect another the next time around, a system where people's choices mattered."

'No evidence against him, there is nothing'

Just how much of an impact Soltan's case will have on US-Egyptian relations is debatable. As a foreign media liaison for the pro-Morsi Rabaa al-Adawiya protest camp and the son of prominent Muslim Brotherhood member, others say he has not received significant attention in the US.

"Mohammed Soltan has not had a big advocacy campaign behind him, he is not part of a large community and he is associated with the Muslim Brotherhood," said Michele Dunne, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Middle East Program and an expert on US policy in Egypt.

"I'm not aware that US diplomacy on his behalf has been high profile or high-powered, and he hasn't received the type of attention like Al-Jazeera English journalists."

Now, as Soltan's case goes to appeals court, his family, friends and supporters say they will continue fighting for his release.

"There is no evidence against him, there is nothing. So the US government needs to continue pressuring Egypt to release him," said Habiba Shebita, a dual Egyptian-American citizen who is friends with Soltan and has been helping to lead the Free Soltan campaign from the US. She hopes the campaign will awaken Americans to the nature of state repression in Egypt.

"It's not just Mohammed. His case sheds light on the thousands of other political prisoners languishing in Egypt while we claim to be supporting human rights and democracy," Shebita said. "I just don't see how we can continue to support something that continues to go against our principles and our ideals. It doesn't make sense."