Family worries American in Egyptian prison will die soon

Family and friends of Egyptian-American Mohamed Soltan gathered Monday in front of the Egyptian Embassy in D.C. (WTOP/Omama Altaleb)

Omama Altaleb, special to

WASHINGTON — Family and friends worried about the health of Mohamed Soltan, a 26- year-old American held for more than 235 days in an Egyptian prison, are calling for his release.

They gathered in front of the Egyptian Embassy Monday in an effort to pressure Egypt into releasing him.

While small protests in D.C. are common, for the families of those involved, they are a way to let others know what’s going on around the world.

“I just hope he’s freed soon,” says Soltan’s younger brother Omar Soltan, a 20-year-old student studying political science at Northern Virginia Community College. He hasn’t seen his brother, who has dual U.S.-Egyptian citizenship, since June 27, 2013.

Egyptian police arrested Mohamed Soltan and his friends at his family’s home on Aug. 25, 2013. The arrests came after the military coup and overthrow of former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi. At the time of his arrest, Mohamed Soltan was part of the “Anti-Coup Coalition,” an umbrella group led mainly by the Islamist supporters of Morsi, NBC reports.

Mohamed Soltan, the son of Salah Soltan, a controversial leader with the Muslim Brotherhood, has been on a hunger strike for more than 85 days at the Istikbal Torah prison in Cairo, Egypt.

Because of the hunger strike, Omar Soltan says he is afraid his brother could die soon.

Virginia resident Hanaa Soltan, Mohamed Soltan’s elder sister, says Mohamed Soltan has continuously collapsed within the past 20 days. He has a pre-existing pulmonary embolism disorder and she says the prison hasn’t given him proper care.

“The last time he fell, he passed out in a bathroom and was left there for 17 hours before anyone showed up to provide him with any sort of care,” she says.

Pooja Jhunjhunwala, a spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department, says American citizens imprisoned abroad are a top priority for the State Department, and that Mohamed Soltan’s case is being closely monitored.

“The welfare of U.S. citizens incarcerated abroad is a top priority for the State Department. 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. We routinely seek consular visits with Mr. Soltan, and arranged for him to be seen by an outside physician to assess his condition,” Jhunjhunwala says.

Jhunjhunwala says the state department is in contact with his family and legal team about recent developments.

Hanaa Soltan says her brother is accused of management of the Rabaa Al-Adawiya Square sit-in protests last August.

“I’m not sure what that entails or what that means but there hasn’t been any sort of legal proceedings or evidence brought forth against him for anything,” she says.

Mohamed Soltan, according to the Detroit Free Press is charged with six crimes ranging from funding a terrorist organization to membership in an armed militia.

Amnesty International, CODEPINK and the Egyptian Americans for Democracy and Human Rights co-organized Monday’s protest where supporters held face masks of Soltan and signs around their necks reading “I am Mohamed Soltan.”

“We are working to re-instill justice in Egypt. What we’re looking at is wrongfully accusing folks, almost 2,000 political prisoners. We’re talking about thousands of people who have died protesting the military rule in Egypt,” says Osamah Saleh, media coordinator for EADHR and a personal friend of Mohamed Soltan.

According to Hanaa Soltan, Mohamed Soltan was in Egypt last March to take care of his sick mother who was going through chemotherapy at the time. Shortly after, he got a job at an Egyptian petroleum company as a business development manager.

When the pro-democracy, anti-military coup protests occurred in Egypt, Mohamed Soltan volunteered as a civilian journalist since he spoke both Arabic and English fluently, his sister says. He helped foreign journalists on the ground navigate the sit-in and get media coverage.

“He hadn’t been anyone who had a public opinion about anything, he’s just an American-Egyptian kid who happened to be there at the time,” she says.

At the time of his arrest, Mohamed Soltan was recovering from surgery to remove a bullet that hit him in the arm 11 days prior, while on stage with an Al Jazeera correspondent who was shot in the head, Hanaa Soltan says. The shooting occurred during the military’s crackdown on Islamists who were protesting the ejection of the Muslim brotherhood from power, USA TODAY reports.

Saleh says Al Jazeera correspondent Abdullah al-Shami also is on a hunger strike.

Speaking into a megaphone, a CODEPINK advocate read Mohamed Soltan’s letter to President Barack Obama that was published in the New York Times.

In an excerpt, Mohamed writes:

“Unfortunately, my reality is that I am waking up day after day in a packed underground cell, awaiting the chance to shower, or another laughable interrogation in front of an impartial puppet, just so I can get some sunlight and move my legs in hopes of avoiding another blood clot.”

Medea Benjamin, co-founder of CODEPINK , a grassroots peace and social justice organization, says she is very upset that only a few Americans know about what is happening in Egypt.

According to Benjamin, the Human Rights Watch has called for Mohamed Soltan’s release. CODEPINK called, sent letters and emailed Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, various members of the State Department and the Egyptian Embassy to increase pressure to free him.

The U.S. Embassy in Cairo has been helpful, Hanaa Soltan says. It provides Mohamed’s family members with access to visit him weekly. However, Benjamin does not think that is enough.

“He’s an American citizen, 26 years old. The charges against him are ludicrous and he should be back home with his family here in the United States,” Benjamin says.

Omar Soltan describes his brother as a strong, hard-headed and determined individual. He says he supports his brother’s hunger strike because he says it shows that political prisoners still have a way to peacefully protest.

“He stands up for what he believes in, no matter what,” he says. “It’s not just about him anymore, it’s about something much bigger.”

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