Egypt said Tuesday it would investigate the death in custody of a U.S. citizen who had gone on a hunger strike as part of a six-year battle against what he insisted was wrongful imprisonment.
Mustafa Kassem, 54, an Egyptian-born auto parts dealer from Long Island, New York, died late Monday of heart failure after a hunger strike he began last year, his lawyers said.
The case has trained a spotlight on the dangers of Egyptian prisons, where many inmates are serving time for crimes they insist they did not commit, or have not been charged at all, as President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi escalates a crackdown on dissent.
Egypt’s chief prosecutor ordered an autopsy and said officials are questioning all doctors who oversaw Kassem’s care in prison and at the Cairo University hospital where he died.
“His death in custody was needless, tragic and avoidable,” Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker told reporters. “I will continue to raise our serious concerns about human rights and Americans detained in Egypt at every opportunity.”
Kassam was in Cairo to visit family in August 2013 when his lawyers say he was mistakenly swept up in a vast dragnet during the violent dispersal of an Islamist sit-in that killed hundreds of people.
That summer, security forces descended on supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi, who hails from the Muslim Brotherhood, in what became known as the “Rabaa Massacre.”
Kassam was exchanging money at a shopping mall near Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adawiya Square when police stopped him and asked to see identification. When he handed over his U.S. passport, officers suddenly started beating him, and detained him. He was held for five years before he was charged.
Then in 2018, in a mass trial of over 700 defendants widely condemned by human rights organizations, Kassam was sentenced to 15 years under a contentious anti-protest law. After that, he refused to eat anything but vegetable juice, his lawyers said.
When President Donald Trump secured the release of Egyptian-American rights advocate Aya Hijazi, who was imprisoned for three years in Egypt on false charges, Kassam appealed to the U.S. administration for help. Vice President Mike Pence raised the issue last year with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
El-Sisi came to power the same summer of 2013 and has overseen a sweeping crackdown on dissent, silencing critics and jailing thousands.