Why an American is imprisoned and on hunger strike in Egypt

Mohamed Soltan faces trial on charges of misinforming the media and being associated with the Muslim Brotherhood

Too weak to stand from more than 100 days on hunger strike, 26-year-old Mohamed Soltan was wheeled into a Cairo courtroom on a stretcher last week.

“Because striking is the only peaceful means left to me to resist injustice and oppression, because opinion or thought or even sympathy is not a crime,” he told the judge about his decision not to eat. “Because I refuse to relinquish any part of my Egyptian or American identity, because I love this country, no matter who wrongs me, and I also love America.”

Soltan is a U.S. citizen, one of a handful being held in Egyptian prisons.

Born in Cairo but raised in Kansas City and Detroit, he finished his economics degree at Ohio State University. In March 2013, he returned to Egypt to take care of his mother and was quickly swept up in protests against the ousting of President Mohamed Morsi. Fluent in English and Arabic, he was popular with Western news crews looking for a sound bite.

Now he is standing trial on charges of misinforming the media and being associated with the Muslim Brotherhood.

‘Not doing enough’

Soltan was in Rabaa Square on Aug. 14, 2013 — a day now marked as the bloodiest day in modern Egyptian history — when more than 900 people were killed after security forces raided two camps of protesters in Cairo. While talking to a reporter, Soltan was shot in the arm by a sniper who barely missed his head.

Mohamed Soltan

Almost two weeks later, before he had time to fully recover, security forces raided his family’s home. They were looking for Soltan’s father, Salah Soltan, but they found Mohamed Soltan instead and locked him up in the notorious Tora prison.

A month later, his father was captured and taken to the same prison. Salah Soltan is a member of the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and an Egyptian. Mohamed Soltan, an American, says he has never been a member of the group.

In prison, the 250-pound man lost more than 90 pounds. Even his brother Omar Soltan barely recognizes him.

“All my life I’ve known my brother. He was a big guy,” Omar Soltan said, “It really breaks my heart to see him that way.”

Since childhood, Omar Soltan remembers Mohamed Soltan as a leader.

“My dad would always travel a lot and … He would always leave my brother in charge of everything,” Omar Soltan told “America Tonight.”

[The doctors] say he can die any day now.

Omar Soltan

Mohamed Soltan’s brother

After his brother's arrest, Omar Soltan, a political science major at Northern Virginia Community College, was launched into a crash course on American and Egyptian civics.

Mohamed Soltan receiving treatment after being shot in the arm at a protest in August 2013.

Eight months later, Omar Soltan says the U.S. government has done the minimum to aid his brother’s release.

“In 2012 there were two NGOs that got arrested in Egypt, and Hillary Clinton … applied pressure on the government, and the charges were dropped out of nowhere,” he said.

But he said nothing like that has been attempted for his brother.

The State Department told “America Tonight” the welfare of U.S. citizens incarcerated abroad is a top priority.

“We continue providing appropriate consular services to Mr. Soltan, which include monitoring his health, pressing Egyptian authorities to ensure he has access to appropriate care, and maintaining regular access,” the State Department wrote in its official statement about Mohamed Soltan’s case. “We take with utmost seriousness the hunger strike of any U.S. citizen in a foreign prison.”

Omar Soltan believes that isn’t enough.

"They told us in the beginning that they will try to find out where he was, and we were the ones … finding out from people and telling them where Mohamed was,” he told “America Tonight.” “They told us they will make sure he is not getting tortured, which happened.”

In a letter to President Barack Obama that was smuggled out of his prison cell in January, Mohamed Soltan wrote that he had been denied appropriate medical care in prison.

Last week, I underwent a procedure to remove two 13" metal nails that were placed in my left arm to help support and repair the damage sustained from a gunshot wound I suffered at the hands of Egyptian security forces. The bullet that punctured my arm was paid for by our tax dollars. I was forced to undergo this procedure without any anesthesia or sterilization because the Egyptian authorities refused to transfer me to a hospital for proper surgical care.

After the nails penetrated the skin at my elbow from below, and ripped through my shoulder muscle from above. The doctor who performed this procedure is a cellmate. He used pliers and a straight razor in lieu of a scalpel. I laid on a dirty mat as my other cellmates held me down to ensure I did not jolt from the pain and risk permanent loss of feeling and function in that arm. The pain was so excruciating, it felt like my brain could explode at any given point. I was finally given two aspirin pills almost an hour later when the guards found my cellmates’ screams for help unbearable.

In the letter, he also and voiced his disappointment with Obama, whom he worked to help elect in 2008 and 2012.

“You’d expect this from Egypt but not from America,” Omar Soltan said. “He’s frustrated mostly with the American government because they’re not doing anything and they could do anything.”

Not so simple

Omar Soltan tells Joie Chen his family is trying to build political pressure to secure his brother’s release.
America Tonight

But legal experts say that what the U.S. government is obligated to do and what it’s able to do in reality is a more complicated matter.

"It depends on the agreement between the two countries," said Ahmed Ghappour, a lawyer and soon to be a professor at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law.

A representative of the government in a situation like this has the right to visit the prisoner. Being able to free that prisoner, Ghappour explained, is not a right granted in the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations.

But if the individual is sentenced and appeals have been exhausted, there are different mechanisms to get him released. 

One is a transfer treaty, under which a prisoner is transferred to a U.S. prison to complete his sentence. But Ghappour said the success rate for that option is almost zero.

“In addition to exhaustion of [other] remedies, both countries and the prisoner must consent to the transfer. Typically, the offense committed abroad must also be an offense in the U.S.,” Ghappour said. “In my experience, Egypt has never transferred a prisoner to the U.S. in this manner.”

In the case of Mohamed Soltan, Ghappour said it may come down to political pressure.

“Does the U.S. have the political influence to pressure the Egyptians? Possibly, but certainly not that which it once had,” he explained. “Unfortunately the problem here seems to be one of political will, not political clout. The U.S. does not appear to be taking any steps toward a favorable resolution, diplomatic or otherwise.”

Mounting political pressure is what Mohamed Soltan’s family is hoping for, especially as he grows weaker. He has a blood-clot disorder, but the prison hospital gave him too much blood thinner, his brother said.

“[The doctors] say he can die any day now because his blood levels are in such a critical state right now that if he just gets hurt, he could bleed to death,” Omar Soltan said.

But when asked whether he would tell his brother to give up the hunger strike, Omar Soltan said he would not.

“It’s for an important cause,” he said. “Of course, he’s my brother, and I’m afraid he’s going to die, and the thought of that makes me cry sometimes, but it’s not just about him anymore.”

Correction May 23 at 1:45 p.m. E.T.: An earlier version of this article stated that a private foreign lawyer has the right to visit the prisoner and report on his welfare. Private foreign lawyers do not have that right. It is the right only of a representative of the government.

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