CAIRO — Mohamed Soltan, an American-Egyptian citizen, has been held in an Egyptian prison for almost seven months. He says he’s been tortured, stripped naked and beaten. He says he’s witnessed prisoners beaten to death, that he’s been subjected to forced surgery, and that much of his time has been spent in an overcrowded prison cell with no consistent running water. No formal charges have been brought against him.
Yet his biggest grievance is reserved for the United States government, which has been unable to secure his release or provide him the kind of benefits once afforded to American citizens here. In an interview with a McClatchy reporter who visited him in prison, he described his arrest, detention, lagging case and his frustration that his American passport cannot help him in post-Arab Spring Egypt.
For Soltan and others living here, the perks of being an American no longer are what they once were. While U.S. citizens are subject to the laws of the nation they visit, for decades there was an unspoken rule here that Americans and foreigners who contributed to the all-important tourism industry were exempt from laws that might snare ordinary Egyptians.
No longer. These days, foreign citizens and consular officials alike are confronting an evolving system that is overtaxed by the sheer number of people imprisoned and where prisoners are often abused, tortured and even killed.
Soltan, who was born in Cairo but grew up in Missouri, Michigan and Ohio and graduated from Ohio State University, is one of at least seven American citizens known to be incarcerated in Egyptian prisons, where international law, Geneva Convention rules on prisoner treatment and now U.S. influence have limited reach.
Soltan said he’s been on a hunger strike, consuming only water flavored with sugar or salt, for more than 40 days, demanding to know why he’s being held. “This is the only peaceful means of resistance left for me,” he said. “After losing hope in the U.S. government, my only hope is in God.”
Before the 2011 uprising that led to the fall of former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, Egyptians afforded Americans, more than any other nationality, exceptional treatment. Just the wave of an American passport could serve as a get-out-of-jail-free card. And in instances where Americans reached a prison cell, officials from the Mubarak government made backroom deals to settle the case quickly — and quietly.
Since then, Americans have been swept up as xenophobia, anti-American sentiment and the size of the crackdown on suspected Islamists grow. The consular section of the U.S. Embassy says it has seen a surge in arrests of Americans since August.
Now there is little the U.S. government can do to break Americans out of the Egyptian system, a major departure from the situation in December 2011, when the U.S. was able to negotiate the departure of 43 nonprofit group workers before charges of working for foreign entities could be made against them.
U.S. officials say they believe their access still makes a difference, by reminding Egyptian officials that the U.S. is watching how its nationals are being treated.
During the visit from McClatchy, Soltan looked no different from the Egyptian prisoners. He wore a white prison uniform. His wrist bore the words “Esteqbal Visitor,” stamped in blue, referring to the section of the Tora prison where he’s being held. The stamp is to make sure he doesn’t exchange his clothes with a male visitor and run away. Soltan says it feels like a brand. “They treat us like animals,” Soltan said.
His family, like thousands of Egyptian families, waited for hours to see him for 30 minutes. And like others accused of being associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, his case languishes in the Egyptian court system. Soltan has yet to be assigned a court date. The courts are expected to decide next week whether to extend his stay another 45 days.
Soltan, 26, was arrested Aug. 25 when security forces raided his house, looking for his father, a Muslim Brotherhood leader. The raid followed the violent dispersal Aug. 14 of two large encampments set up to protest the ouster of President Mohammed Morsi, a longtime Brotherhood member who was Egypt’s first democratically elected president. At least 1,200 people were killed that day. Since then, security forces have arrested roughly 23,000.
Soltan was first taken to Cairo’s Al Basateen police station.
“They snatched all of the prisoners, cuffed them and threw them in the police vehicle, without allowing them to take their property,” Soltan recalled.
One prisoner resisted and wanted to take his bag with him, Soltan explained. The result was Soltan’s first exposure to the pervasive abuse of prisoners in Egyptian jails.
“With the back of their guns, their hands, they suddenly surrounded him and the police beat the (crap) out of him. He just didn’t get up,” said Soltan, who watched through the little window in the police vehicle. “We didn’t know if this was going to be our destiny.”
As soon as the detainees arrived at the prison, Soltan said that they were all subjected to beatings with sticks, belts and whips.
“We had to walk through a long hallway like a maze with police lined up along the walls beating all of us while we passed by,” Soltan said.
At one hall, Soltan and the other prisoners were ordered to strip to their underwear, then stand facing the wall.
“A police officer called me and the other three political prisoners and shaved our heads. He told the other police that we were the ones who killed police officers in Rabaa, so they beat the (crap) out of us for 20 minutes,” he said.
“A guy’s eye popped out. It was very disturbing to see,” he added.
At the time, U.S. officials did not know about Soltan’s arrest. Two days later, his brother called the embassy, and U.S. officials began the long process of securing a visit. They began by finding out where Soltan was in the byzantine prison system and then filing requests to see him. The approval was granted Sept. 7, and the visit came a week later.
U.S. officials have visited Soltan three more times since and have asked for another. There’s nothing the U.S. can do about his incarceration, but the officials try to make certain the Egyptian government knows they are keeping a watchful eye on his treatment. Consular officials say they plan to attend every court session.
While U.S. officials have ensured his family visits and medical care, Soltan notes that they have only brought him one copy of The Economist and a bottle of Gatorade when they learned that he was on a hunger strike.
Soltan is visited weekly by his family, though such visits require his relatives to wait for hours before they are allowed inside to see him. On a recent visit a McClatchy reporter accompanied them.
The visiting room is large and crowded, with benches built into the walls. The space is so congested that every movement brings contact with another person.
“You’re lucky it’s not as crowded as it usually is,” said Asmaa Sobhy, whose father, a top Muslim Brotherhood leader, shares Soltan’s cell.
Mothers, fathers, wives and children pushed and shoved, trying to spot their loved ones who were coming down a long pink hallway to the visitors’ room. The same scene played out on the other side, as prisoners bounced up and down, trying to catch a glimpse of their families.
Soltan’s cousin, Mohannad, and his Uncle Saaid eyed the line of prisoners coming. As soon as Mohannad spotted his American cousin, he started waving and tilting his head. “There he is,” Mohannad told a McClatchy reporter, excitedly pointing at his cousin.
As soon as Soltan stepped into the room his cousin rushed to him and the two embraced, a move that revealed a scar on Soltan’s arm. It was what remained of two metal pins that had been placed in his left arm to repair damage sustained from a gunshot wound received during the violent breakup of the pro-Morsi encampments. A fellow prisoner, a doctor, performed the operation without anesthesia after Egyptian authorities refused to transfer Soltan to a hospital for proper care, he said.
After Soltan and his family conversed, a visitor offered Saaid a piece of chocolate. Saaid unwrapped it and tried to persuade Soltan to break his hunger strike.
“I can’t. I’ve been on hunger strike for 41 days. I can’t just end it like this,” Soltan said, waving the candy away. “If I die, I will be a martyr.”
While visibly thinner than his 250-pound frame before his arrest, Soltan looked relatively healthy. But his spirits were broken.
“We will end up dying in vain,” he yelled as the police were escorting all of the families out of the room.