Paul Gottinger / Reader Supported News – 2015-04-15 00:49:56
(April 14, 2015) — Less than two weeks after the Obama administration normalized relations with the Egyptian government by releasing over $1 billion in US taxpayer-funded military aid and weapons, an Egyptian court sentenced an American citizen to life imprisonment. What was his crime? He was peacefully protesting to protect the values of democracy and political freedom that he learned in America.
Mohamed Soltan, a 27-year-old man who grew up in Ohio and campaigned for Obama in 2007, was one of 37 people sentenced to life imprisonment last Saturday. Fourteen others were sentenced to death. This is the latest in a long line of draconian sentences handed down by Egyptian courts since the military seized power in a military coup in 2013. John Kerry controversially said the coup was “restoring democracy.”
Mr. Soltan has been on a hunger strike for over a year to protest his imprisonment, which has continued, without charges, for over 16 months. In a statement in January, Mr. Soltan’s family said photographs of Mohamed Soltan confirm “increased reports of physical and psychological torture.”
Human Rights Watch described Mr. Soltan’s recent sentence as “politically motivated” and “blatantly unjust.” Mr. Soltan’s sister, Hanaa Soltan, told Reader Supported News that the Egyptian justice system “is a vehicle of repression against everyone who opposes the current regime.”
As a result of the hunger strike, Mr. Soltan’s health is in serious decline. American diplomats warned earlier this year that Mr. Soltan’s hunger strike posed “a significant threat to his life.”
When asked about Mr. Soltan’s condition, Hanaa Soltan told RSN, “Mohamed has been consuming liquids for a few weeks now, but he is determined to continue [with the hunger strike] despite our multiple pleas to break it. He is in bad physical and emotional shape. He does not receive any medical care worth mentioning, and is held in solitary confinement.”
Mohamed Soltan, a graduate of Ohio State University, moved back to Egypt after college to help his mother, who had just been diagnosed with breast cancer.
While living in Egypt, a military coup ousted the first democratically elected leader in Egypt’s history, Mohamed Morsi. Mr. Soltan took part in the large protests against the coup calling for a return to democracy. Mr. Soltan, being fluent in both English and Arabic, became a spokesman for one of the large protest camps located at Rabaa Square.
When the Egyptian military seized control of the country in July of 2013, they instituted a vicious crackdown on political freedom and human rights, which continues to the present. One of the worst incidents of this crackdown took place on August 14, 2013, when the Egyptian security forces opened fire on the protest camp where Mr. Soltan and thousands of others were protesting.
The result was a massacre on par with the one in Tiananmen Square. Human Rights Watch estimates that around 1,000 people were killed, with around 4,000 injured. Mr. Soltan himself narrowly avoided death when a bullet from a sniper barely missed his head. A second bullet from the sniper struck him in the arm, shattering his bone.
While at home recovering from surgery for his gunshot wound, Mr. Soltan was arrested as part of a crackdown on opposition to the military junta. Today Mr. Soltan, along with his father, Salah Soltan, a former member of Egypt’s government, are two of 15,000 political prisoners currently detained in Egypt.
In a letter smuggled out of prison, Mohamed Soltan describes how a cellmate performed surgery to remove a 13-inch nail in his arm, put in place to help repair damage from the gunshot wound. The cellmate, who happened to be a doctor, operated on Mr. Soltan with only a straight razor and pliers, and without any painkillers or sterilization.
Unfortunately, the pain of Mohamed Soltan and the thousands of others like him in Egypt continues. However, prisoners like Mr. Soltan should not bear this pain alone; Americans should help bear some of the burden. Mr. Soltan believed in the best of America, and when someone takes a stand for freedom and democracy, we as Americans should stand with him.
Mr. Soltan believed strongly in the American values of democracy, free speech, and human rights, and he took action to defend them. That was the case in the US when he believed that Obama could make the US a better country, and that was the case in Egypt. As a result, he witnessed nearly a thousand people give their lives for those values in a massacre, and now faces life in prison.
But why hasn’t the US government honored these “American values” in Egypt? Why hasn’t the Obama administration taken a harder stand against Egypt’s brutal political repression, its systematic human rights abuses, its 1,300 protesters killed, its mass death sentences, its outlawing of a major political party, its banning of protest, its jailing of journalists, and its subversion of democracy?
The Obama administration’s response has emphasized the strategic importance of Egypt’s military alliance to the US and done much too little to pressure Egypt to address its human rights abuses. The Obama administration’s decision to release over a billion dollars in military aid and hundreds of millions of dollars worth of heavy weaponry is a clear indication of where the US government’s priorities are.
Releasing a billion dollars worth of US military aid to Egypt legitimizes a criminal government and sends a message to the people of Egypt that America doesn’t care about the “American values” of democracy and human rights. It also shows that the Obama administration has turned its back on one of America’s own citizens, a citizen who worked to make both the US and Egypt better countries.
Ibrahim Hooper, the communications director at the Council of Islamic Relations, told RSN, “It’s a shame that the US is sending millions in assistance to a regime that overthrew the first democratically elected leader in 5,000 years of Egyptian history. The assistance continues despite the fact that an American sits in jail and continues a year-long hunger strike.”
The release of this military assistance had previously been conditioned on progress by the Egyptian government toward a democratic transition and progress on human rights. But Obama waived these conditions, citing US national security interests.
Hanaa Soltan also expressed concern about the Obama’s decision to release US military aid to Egypt. She stated, “it sends a message of approval much stronger than the verbal condemnation of human rights abuses can ever communicate.”
In his letter to Obama, Mr. Soltan writes:
“I often get asked sarcastically by judges, officers, and even inmates, â€˜Where is this first world country that takes such pride in defending human rights and freedoms? Where are they now to help you?’ Of course, I am left speechless every time.”
Obama must do more to protect human rights and democracy in Egypt and around the world, and we as Americans must do all we can to pressure him to do so. Those in power will only express the best aspects of our country’s values when we as Americans are actively engaged and exert pressure on them.
When asked what she thinks will happen to her brother, Hanaa Soltan said, “Our hope is that he is released on humanitarian grounds. Acquittal would be the only fair thing, but I do not expect that.”
To those who wonder whether Obama has the leverage to free Mohamed Soltan, Mr. Hooper told RSN, “Of course there is more that the Obama administration can do. We know this because Mohamed Soltan is still in jail.”
Paul Gottinger is a staff reporter at RSN whose work focuses on the Middle East and the arms industry. He can be reached on Twitter @paulgottinger or via email.
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