Mohamed Soltan, a 2012 Ohio State University graduate who grew up in the Midwest and campaigned for Barack Obama, has been on a hunger strike for more than 14 months.
CAIRO — An Egyptian criminal court sentenced a dual U.S.-Egyptian citizen on a monthslong hunger strike to life in prison Saturday on charges of financing an anti-government sit-in and spreading false news.
Mohamed Soltan, the son of a prominent member of the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, was arrested in August 2013, when security forces came looking for his father at his house. They didn’t find the father at the time, but arrested him instead, Soltan’s family said. His father, Salah Soltan, was detained later.
Mohamed, 27, a 2012 Ohio State University graduate who grew up in the Midwest and campaigned for Barack Obama, has been on a hunger strike over his detention for more than 14 months, and his health is rapidly deteriorating, his family said.
The court also upheld death sentences for 14 people, including Brotherhood leader Mohammed Badie and Mohamed’s father, Salah Soltan, and sentenced 36 others to life in prison, including three Egyptian journalists.
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The sentencing came just days after President Obama released hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid for Egypt that had previously been suspended in response to the military takeover and subsequent repression.
Egypt’s military-backed government has banned the Muslim Brotherhood, and labeled it a terrorist group.
Soltan’s brother Omar said in a phone interview that Mohamed Soltan is being held alone in a prison hospital where even the guards are not allowed to speak with him. He only receives outside news during court sessions, when he sees his father in the defendant cage.
Mohamed has been refusing medical checks since security forces moved his father to a higher-security prison two months ago. The father, a diabetic with blood-pressure problems, has been denied any medication since then, Omar said.
“Egyptian authorities are using my father to pressure Mohamed into ending his hunger strike, but he continues to refuse,” said Omar, adding that the family plans to appeal the sentences.
The case is rooted in the violence that swept Egypt after the military-led ouster in July 2013 of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, a veteran Brotherhood leader, whose supporters set up protest camps in Cairo. Security forces violently dispersed the sit-ins in August 2013, killing hundreds. In retaliation, many police stations and churches came under attack.
President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who as army chief had overthrown Morsi amid mass protests against the Islamist leader, issued a decree in November that allows him to deport foreign defendants convicted or accused of crimes.
“We’re hoping that Mohammed will be deported from Egypt under that new law,” said Omar. The government has given no indication such a move is under consideration.
After Mohamed Soltan graduated with an economics degree from Ohio State, he found a job in Cairo at a petroleum-services company. Although his father is a prominent and outspoken member of the Muslim Brotherhood, the younger Soltan disagreed with the group and criticized Morsi, his family and friends say. But he has also said he opposed the military removal of Morsi, Egypt’s first fairly elected president, because it was undemocratic.
He began volunteering as a translator for Western journalists covering one of the sit-ins protesting the ouster. Security forces broke it up on Aug. 14, 2013, killing nearly 1,000, according to the best estimates provided by Human Rights Watch and others. Mohamed Soltan was shot in the arm during the assault on the sit-in. He was arrested days later at home, when the police showed up looking for his father.
He and the others in the case were reportedly accused of joining a command center at the sit-in that sought to spread chaos across Egypt in defiance of the government.
None of the defendants were present in the courtroom as Judge Mohammed Nagi Shehata read his ruling Saturday. Shehata has a reputation for issuing harsh sentences against perceived government critics.
The State Department said the U.S. government is “deeply disappointed” by the court’s decision. “We remain deeply concerned about Mr. Soltan’s health and detention,” spokeswoman Marie Harf said. “The United States reiterates our call for the release of Mr. Soltan on humanitarian grounds, and we urge the Government of Egypt to redress the verdict.”
Since Morsi’s ouster, Egypt has faced international criticism for conducting mass trials with judges rapidly issuing severe sentences.
Mohamed Elmessiry, the Egypt researcher for rights group Amnesty International, said in a phone interview that Saturday’s verdicts were “politically motivated.”
“Egypt’s criminal justice system has proved since the ousting of Morsi that it’s not independent,” he said.