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US State Department considers slashing $1.3bn Egypt military aid after American's death in detention

Egyptian-American Mustafa Kassem died of heart failure in January 13 while imprisoned in Egypt.

Date of publication: 1 April, 2020

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The US State Department recently considered slashing a chunk of Egypt's annual $1.3 billion in military aid over a US citizen's death, according to a Foreign Policy report.
The US State Department recently floated the idea of cutting a significant portion of Egypt's $1.3 billion annual military aid over US citizen Mustafa Kassem's death in Egyptian detention in January, Foreign Policy reported on Tuesday.

Mustafa Kassem, a 54-year-old Egyptian-American taxi driver, died of heart failure on January 13 after a hunger strike while imprisoned. Kassem's lawyer said the New York cab driver, who suffered from health conditions, died while authorities ignored his release paperwork.

An early March memo from the State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo included an option to slash up to $300 million in US military aid to Egypt over Kassem's death, according to Foreign Policy.

Egypt, the second largest recipient of US military assistance, enjoys warm relations with the United States.

US President Donald Trump has largely overlooked human rights abuses in Egypt and repeatedly praised Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, whose rule has been heavily criticised by human rights groups.

Foreign Policy also reported that Democratic senators Patrick Leahy and Chris Van Hollen wrote to Pompeo in February to urge him to withhold $300 million in military aid to Cairo in accordance to laws passed since the Arab Spring.

Leahy and Hollen also called for sanctions against Egyptian officials responsible for Kassem's imprisonment and death.

The letter, which was obtained by Foreign Policy, read: "If we continue business as usual, we will be sending the dangerous message that we will not use our leverage to assist Americans, wrongfully imprisoned in Egypt, including the several that remain in Egyptian prisons today and that we will not hold the Egyptian government accountable when it commits such grave abuses against Americans."

It is unknown whether the State Department's March memo was influenced by the senators' correspondence.

Prior to Kassem's death, both Pompeo and US Vice President Mike Pence have attempted to secure the dual citizen's release, according to Foreign Policy.

Despite such efforts during Kassem's incarceration, the State Department and Pentagon have been working on a high-level proposal to expand US military aid to Egypt by several billion dollars, a congressional source told Foreign Policy.

On a home visit to his wife and children in Cairo in August 2013, Kassem, a naturalised US citizen, was arrested as authorities cracked down on demonstrations at the capital's Rabaa Square.

After being held without charges for five years, Kassem was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2018 on charges of trying to overthrow the government in a mass trial with hundreds of defendants.

Kassem maintained he was wrongfully arrested and did not participate in the demonstrations.

During his meeting with Sisi on the sidelines of a December 2019 conference in Berlin, Pompeo "expressed outrage" over Kassem's "pointless and tragic death", a State Department spokeswoman said in a statement.

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