Mohamed Soltan, an American citizen who spent nearly two years in an Egyptian prison, allegedly suffering brutal treatment after peacefully opposing the overthrow of Egypt’s first duly elected president, Mohamed Morsi, filed a civil suit on June 1, 2020, against former Egyptian Prime Minister Hazem al-Beblawy.
Soltan, the victim of what Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called one of the worst crimes in Egyptian history, has sued al-Beblawy in the US District Court in Washington, DC, under the Torture Victim Protection Act (TVPA).
The TVPA, which was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in 1992, permits US citizens and non-citizens to bring civil claims in US courts for compensation and damages for torture and extrajudicial killing committed in foreign countries by individuals acting in an official capacity. The statute has been used in rare instances to seek justice for victims of torture—in one case successfully with respect to a Guatemalan official in 1992, and in another unsuccessfully in 2012 with respect to the Palestinian authority.
Soltan’s story is shocking, but it may be one of the few human rights abuse cases in history that, thanks to the TVPA, may result in holding to account at least some of the Egyptian officials responsible.
An Egyptian American raised mostly in the Midwest, Soltan was working as a liaison to foreign journalists in Cairo after the 2013 military coup.
The lawsuit alleges that Soltan participated in a largely peaceful sit-in at Cairo’s Rab’a Square in July and August 2013, to oppose the military’s forcible removal of former President Mohamed Morsi. On August 14, 2013, Egyptian security forces swept in and violently dispersed the protesters; 817 people were killed. HRW has called these killings and the systematic and widespread murder of at least 1,150 demonstrators during this period “likely crimes against humanity.”
The suit alleges that during Soltan’s imprisonment, he was beaten and tortured, deprived of sleep and daylight, and burned with cigarettes.
The suit alleges that during Soltan’s imprisonment between 2013 and 2015, he was, among other things, beaten and tortured, deprived of sleep and daylight, and burned with cigarettes.
Soltan went on a hunger strike, which ironically seems to have saved his life. He was ultimately released by the new president, al-Sisi, under a law he had passed allowing him to release prisoners who renounce their Egyptian citizenship and are deported to the US.
While the use of the TVPA to seek justice for victims of torture has been relatively rare, this may be one of the few success stories. The massacre at Rab’a Square and the subsequent repression has never been investigated by the Egyptian authorities, according to Balkees Jarrah, Associate International Justice Director at HRW.
“This US suit may be a step toward setting the record straight about what happened and who was responsible,” Jarrah said.
HRW has analyzed videos and documents related to the massacre at Rab’a Square. According to HRW Executive Director Kenneth Roth, “This wasn’t merely a case of excessive force or poor training. It was a violent crackdown planned at the highest levels of the Egyptian government.”
The Egyptian security forces carried out “one of the world’s largest killings of demonstrators in a single day in recent history,” Roth said, claiming that a government premeditated plan anticipated thousands of deaths.
Named defendant al-Beblawy served as the Prime Minister of Egypt’s interim government from July 2013 until he resigned in February 2014. He currently lives in the US and is an executive director at the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Soltan’s suit claims that al-Beblawy is responsible not only for the torture Soltan received at the hands of officers while in detention in Cairo, but also for their attempted extrajudicial execution of him.
The lawsuit also names a number of “unsued” defendants. These are other Egyptian officials Soltan claims are responsible and who should be held accountable but are not presently parties to the suit.
What makes this case seemingly unique is that many of the government officials are still in power in Egypt.
What makes this case seemingly unique is that many of the government officials are still in power in Egypt. Among the figures named in the suit is current Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who was the Minister of Defense at the time of the Rab’a square massacre. Named also is General Mohamed Ibrahim, the former Interior Minister, and General Mahmoud Sayed Sha’rawi, the former Assistant Interior Minister and Deputy Director of Egypt’s National Security Agency.
Because under the TVPA the foreign officials must be within the US to be subject to suit, al-Sisi, Ibrahim, and Sha’rawi are not actual defendants. However, the lawsuit forewarns that they could be added as formal defendants if they were to travel to the US.
Al-Beblawy has moved to dismiss the lawsuit. His motion relies on a letter dated July 7, 2020, signed by the principal Deputy Director of the State Department’s Office of Foreign Missions, that states that al-Beblawy as Egypt’s “principal resident representative” to the IMF under United Nations agreements still qualifies as a diplomatic envoy. Under the diplomatic convention, he therefore enjoys “full immunity” from criminal, civil, and administrative actions in the US, according to the State Department.
The Trump administration is reportedly under pressure by President al-Sisi, Trump’s “favorite dictator,” to block the suit. Indeed, some US lawmakers and human rights organizations have claimed that Trump is being “blackmailed” by Egypt threatening to weaken the US and Egypt’s strategic partnership in the Middle East.
Egypt is also putting the screws on Soltan. Just days after Soltan filed his lawsuit in US court, Egyptian security forces abducted five of his relatives from their homes. According to Soltan’s lawyers, they have also imprisoned and interrogated his father, a prominent member of the previous Morsi government.
“There is no doubt that the government is holding my five apolitical cousins and dad hostage to pressure me into silence.”
“There is no doubt that the government is holding my five apolitical cousins and dad hostage to pressure me into silence,” Soltan said. He alleges that the “ransom” for their release and safety is to drop his lawsuit.
In early July, Congressman Tom Malinowski spearheaded a letter from 11 House representatives affirming Soltan’s right to sue under US law, and urging the Egyptian government to release his relatives.
For the US to bow to external pressure calling in a political favor would not only be a violation of international law, but a violation of the US Constitution. Yet, that appears to be exactly what the US is doing by providing a statement effectively certifying al-Beblawy’s immunity from suit.
Still, the matter is before a court of law, a body that under the American Constitutional system is not typically influenced by politics. And – as confirmed recently in several cases before the US Supreme Court, even with the administration having packed the Supreme Court with specially chosen conservative justices, Trump has had limited success of late in winning cases.
Nevertheless, Soltan has until July 28 to respond to the motion to dismiss.
While litigation is never certain, that this unique case rests on a statute providing jurisdiction and is before a court of law and not a political body is promising from the standpoint of the rule of law and the ascendency of human rights.