US citizen’s torture go well with to check Egypt relations beneath Biden

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Feb 4, 2021

A lawsuit accusing Egypt’s former prime minister of overseeing the torture of an American citizen may check President Joe Biden’s pledge to carry overseas governments accountable for his or her human rights failings.

The US District Court within the District of Columbia will quickly resolve whether or not Hazem el-Beblawi, Egypt’s interim premier from 2013 to 2014, holds diplomatic immunity standing that may defend him from a federal lawsuit filed in June by activist Mohamed Soltan. The go well with asserts that Beblawi directed and monitored the “brutal, orchestrated regime of detention and torture” of Soltan, who was arrested after live-tweeting Egypt’s violent crackdown on protesters in 2013. During his nearly 22-month imprisonment, Soltan says jail guards tortured him with a purposefully starved assault canine, seizure-inducing strobe lights, sleep deprivation and different types of excessive bodily and emotional abuse. 

His lawsuit was filed beneath the Torture Victim Protection Act, a US legislation that offers federal courts jurisdiction over fits filed by victims of state-sponsored torture overseas. Soltan, who was launched from Egyptian custody in 2015 following sustained stress from the Barack Obama administration, says his case is as a lot about deterring future human rights abuses as it’s holding Egypt accountable for his personal ordeal.

Since seizing energy in 2013, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has waged an unprecedented clampdown on peaceable dissent. Of the estimated 60,000 political prisoners jailed beneath Sisi’s watch are a lot of US residents and everlasting residents, together with Soltan’s father, who’s serving a life sentence for his function in Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. 

Days after Soltan filed his lawsuit, Salah Soltan was moved from his jail cell to an unknown location. He hasn’t been heard from since. 

Soltan believes his father’s disappearance, together with the arbitrary detention of 5 of his Egypt-based male cousins, was Cairo’s method of pressuring him into dropping the lawsuit. 

It has “certainly beat me down,” Soltan mentioned of the obvious reprisals towards his household. “But that abuse by the repressive Egyptian regime has only strengthened my resolve to pursue justice.” 

For Soltan to get his day in court docket, US District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly should first decide whether or not Beblawi holds a diplomatic standing that may immunize him from prosecution. The State Department’s Office of Foreign Missions informed Beblawi’s protection crew in a July letter that in line with its data, the previous premier carries immunity as a “principal resident representative” of Egypt to the DC-based International Monetary Fund (IMF). Until Oct. 31, Beblawi served on the UN company’s government board. 

But attorneys for Soltan, in addition to members of Congress, have questioned whether or not Beblawi’s immunity standing was ever licensed, as required beneath the related UN treaty. They additionally level out that Beblawi is being sued for actions that occurred earlier than his employment on the IMF, and even then, IMF officers are usually solely entitled to immunity for acts taken throughout their official duties.

Beblawi’s attorneys didn’t reply to a request from Al-Monitor searching for remark however in previous court docket filings have dismissed questions over Beblawi’s immunity as “a smokescreen to hide a failed case.” 

In December, the choose invited the State Department to provide extra documentation concerning Beblawi’s immunity standing or submit a proper place on the difficulty. The administration of President Joe Biden responded late final month, saying it wanted till Feb. 26 in order that new State officers may “have sufficient time to become familiar with the issues in this case.”

Eric L. Lewis, Soltan’s lead lawyer, said they are hopeful the Biden administration will take a “firm position that it will not approve immunity for torturers, generally and certainly not in the situation here.” 

Lewis is encouraged by Biden’s campaign pledges on human rights and the fact that many Biden administration officials were involved in securing Soltan’s release in 2015. Also reassuring is a tweet from Biden putting Sisi on notice this July, warning that it is “unacceptable” for the Egyptian government to threaten Soltan’s family and those of other exiled activists.

A State Department official declined to comment on the pending legal matter, but said, “The welfare of all US citizens overseas, especially those detained or incarcerated, remains a top priority for the State Department.”

Were the Biden administration to determine Beblawi is entitled to diplomatic immunity, it would set a “dangerous precedent,” said Philippe Nassif, advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International USA. 

Much like the Beblawi case, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is facing lawsuits that could test Biden’s pledge to take a tougher line on Riyadh. The Saudi royal has claimed immunity in both cases, one accusing him of ordering the assassination of an ex-Saudi intelligence official in Canada, and another blaming him for the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. 

“The fact that we could see immunity given to somebody like [Beblawi] sends a message to Mohammed bin Salman and a lot of other leaders in the world that are closely watching the case,” Nassif said. “I think that’s partly why the Egyptians have been so adamant and nasty when it comes to going after Mohamed Soltan’s family.” 

In the same week that Biden clinched the presidency, Egypt released Soltan’s cousins after 144 days in prison. They still face possible trial on charges that include “spreading false information to shake the grandeur of the state,” the same widely denounced charge that Soltan himself faced seven years ago.