Pompeo expresses ‘outrage’ over prisoner death, rights groups call for Red Cross oversight

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressed outrage over the death of Egyptian American dual national Mustafa Kassem while imprisoned in Egypt, calling the death “pointless and tragic.” His comment came during a sidebar meeting with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at the Berlin conference on Libya on Sunday, according to a statement by the US State Department. 

Kassem, who had been detained since 2013, waged a long-term hunger strike over his imprisonment and its conditions while serving a 15-year sentence in a case stemming from the dispersal of the Rabea al-Adaweya sit-in. He died of heart failure on January 13, according to his lawyers. Egypt’s public prosecutor ordered an official autopsy and investigation into the death. 

Responding to Kassem’s death, which follows the deaths of three other prisoners in less than one month, nine Egyptian rights groups renewed their call for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to visit and inspect detention sites in the country. The statement also calls on the UN Special Rapporteur for Torture to visit and assess prisoner welfare, as well as relevant local and international NGOs.  

The statement describes hundreds of prisoners as at risk of “untimely death” due to medical neglect, as well as prison authorities’ refusal to allow warm clothes and bedding. A few weeks ago, relatives of political detainees launched a social media campaign under the hashtag برد الزنازين# which translates to  #ColdCells, describing lack of access to mattresses, blankets, warm clothes, and hot water. 

Mohamed Zaree, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, one of the signatories to the statement, told Mada Masr that the choice to request oversight from the ICRC has to do with the way that the group operates in particular. Unlike other groups which would publish their findings for the public, the ICRC would bring its findings and recommendations to the government in private, and so “there would be no risk of a public scandal,” according to Zaree. The group has visited detention facilities in Iraq, Algeria, and Syria in recent years, he added. 

The goal would be for the ICRC to help Egypt to improve its prisons. But Zaree said he doubts that Egypt would allow the group access, and believes that the authorities aim to punish political detainees, and that the medical neglect is intentional. 

The ICRC did not respond to a request for comment. A statement from the Egyptian president’s office on the meeting with Pompeo did not mention his comment regarding Mustafa Kassem. 

Following the death of former President Mohamed Morsi in prison last year and widespread accounts of torture and abuse of detainees, Egypt’s State Information Service took a select group of public figures and journalists on a state-managed tour of Egypt’s Tora Prison Complex last November, the same prison complex where Kassem was being held before he died. 

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