US Citizen Detained in Egypt Nearly Two Years Sues Over Torture

People crowd a street a few hours ahead of curfew in Cairo, Egypt, on April 14, 2020. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty, File)

WASHINGTON (CN) — An American citizen and former political prisoner filed a federal lawsuit against Egypt’s former prime minister Monday, claiming he was illegally jailed and tortured at the tail end of the series of uprisings known as the Arab Spring. 

Mohamed Soltan claims then-Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi “attempted extrajudicial killing” of him, which instead lead to imprisonment and torture for his connection to the three-year movement that began in 2011. 

Now a civil rights attorney living in Virginia, Soltan brought the case in Washington federal court. Authored by attorney Eric Lewis of Lewis Baach Kaufmann Middlemiss, the complaint says el-Beblawi was behind Soltan’s nearly 22-month detainment after he advocated for human rights while Egypt descended into chaos. 

Egypt joined the Arab Spring uprisings in early 2011 with protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. The one-month occupation offered hope for human rights changes but was eventually quashed by the country’s military. Then-President Hosni Mubarak resigned from office before being sentenced to life in prison.

The country’s first democratic presidential election was held in June 2012 and Mohamed Morsi won with 51% of the vote. But after more massive protests erupted the next year, the Egyptian military stepped in and installed el-Beblawi as interim prime minister.

Soltan says his dual-language skills allowed him to act as a facilitator of voices opposed to el-Beblawi during the protests that continued into the summer of 2013, tweeting and playing the role of “citizen journalist” to help inform the outside world of “gruesome images and reports detailing the brutal events and mass killings.”

He claims that he “endured horrific physical and psychological abuse” in retaliation for his activities.

“As prime minister, defendant Beblawi directed and monitored plaintiff’s illegal mistreatment, which could not and would not have occurred without his explicit knowledge, approval and direction,” the complaint states, adding that other government officials actually carried out the “torture and inhumane treatment.” 

The Wall Street Journal dubbed el-Beblawi a “free-market champion” after he was installed by the military, but Soltan’s complaint paints him a brutal dictator who authorized the use of live ammunition against protesters as hundreds of people were killed and tens of thousands were arrested on a single day in August 2013.

Soltan was eventually released in May 2015 after “worldwide condemnation from the United States, including directly by President Obama, other governments, and international human rights observers,” according to the lawsuit. He says he still suffers from the effects of the abuse.

The complaint states that el-Beblawi currently works in Washington as executive director for the International Monetary Fund.

“Today, we send a message to the torturers and human rights abusers of Egypt’s corrupt and brutal regime that they cannot commit crimes against humanity and then seek safe haven in the United States and walk the streets of America’s cities with impunity,” Soltan’s attorney, Lewis, said in a statement on his law firm’s website.

Steven A. Cook, senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, has written extensively about the Arab Spring and Egypt’s changes in power. He said in a phone interview that Soltan’s claims sound familiar. 

“In general, it tracks with my understand of Egypt in the summer of 2013 and how people who were against the coup-de-ta were treated,” Cook said. “Anybody who’s been lucky enough to be released from an Egyptian prison has stories along these lines.” 

Cook referred to the August 2013 incident as the massacre at the Rabaa Square and called it one of the most horrific events the country has seen in about 60 years. 

“It started a profound wave of oppression in Egypt,” he said, noting even he stopped his almost monthly visits to the country in the 18 months after the event.  

But Cook did question some parts of the complaint, namely the targeting of el-Beblawi, who was barely in power and, even with a lofty title, was still subject to control by the nation’s military and its current President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who was minister of defense at the time. 

“The security apparatus controls the country and they have a general disdain for civilian politicians and leaders,” Cook said. “Beblawi… could have offered some stability as an economist, but the decision to move into Rabaa Square was outside of his chain.”

The complaint alleges a violation of the Torture Victim Protection Act, a 1992 federal law signed by then-President George H. W. Bush that allows for civil filings against foreigners who commit extrajudicial killings or torture while acting in an official government capacity.

The law was first used by a nun, Sister Dianna Ortiz, in 1992 in a complaint against Guatemalan General and Defense Minister Héctor Gramajo after she claimed she was abducted and tortured in the late 1980s. She was awarded $5 million in the suit. 

But the law has also faced criticism. An American-born Somali tried to use it against the United States in 2009, claiming he was subject to illegal torture by the American military after being apprehended overseas in 2007. Brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, the case was dismissed after the court found the U.S. government was protected because it was a matter of national security. 

Cook said he isn’t sure whether Soltan will succeed in his case, or if he would be awarded damages if he won, but hopes the potential trial could at least bring attention to the massacre at Rabaa Square. 

“It would be an important marker in trying to hold the Egyptian government accountable,” he said, before admitting a win for Soltan would almost certainly not lead to any behavior changes by the Egyptian government 

“Like many governments in the region, the Egyptian government is unaccountable to the people and they do terrible things,” Cook said. “People need to avail themselves to the American legal system to try and get some accountability or at least shine that light.”

The Egyptian embassy in Washington did not return requests for comment on the suit.  

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