American schoolteacher imprisoned in Egypt is released

CAIRO (AP) — An American schoolteacher imprisoned in Egypt for nearly a year without trial has been freed by Egyptian authorities and returned home to the United States, the State Department said Monday.

Reem Desouky, 47, a dual Egyptian-American citizen and single mother from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, was arrested on arrival at the Cairo Airport with her teenage son in July 2019 and hauled off to Qanatir Prison outside the capital. She faced charges of running a Facebook page critical of the Egyptian government. Security officials had confiscated her phone and interrogated her about her political opinions and social medias posts, according to her lawyers. Human rights groups denounced her detention as arbitrary and politically-motivated.

“The Department of State has no higher priority than the safety and welfare of U.S. citizens overseas,” said spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus, welcoming the news of Desouky’s release.

Although the arrest of online critics in Egypt is hardly an unusual event, the incarceration of U.S. citizens in the country has drawn more intensive scrutiny since the death of detained American Mustafa Kassem this year.

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Kassem had spent six years in prison on what he insisted were false charges and died after a long hunger strike in January, sparking sharp condemnation from the Trump administration and even calls to freeze military aid to Egypt. U.S. lawmakers seized on the opportunity to increase pressure on the administration to secure Desouky’s release.

“There had been high-level engagement on her case for months, but it was all upped after the death of Kassem,” said Mohamed Soltan, founder of the Freedom Initiative, which advocated Desouky’s case. “We think Egypt released her as a way to minimize some of that mounting pressure.”

A cellphone video shared by the Freedom Initiative shows Desouky laughing and hugging her friends in the airport parking lot after touching down late Sunday, wearing latex gloves but too overcome with joy to worry about social distancing.

International criticism of Egypt’s bleak human rights record intensified further over the weekend, when news broke that Shady Habash, a young Egyptian filmmaker imprisoned for directing a satirical music video about President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, had suddenly died. The cause of his death was not immediately clear, but it cast a spotlight on the potentially lethal conditions in Egyptian prisons, where thousands of political prisoners languish without trial.

In a phone call with Egypt’s foreign minister last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo raised the issue of U.S. detainees in Egypt and urged that they “be kept safe” during the COVID-19 pandemic. With crowded prisons a powerful breeding ground for the new coronavirus, rights groups have have stepped up their calls to el-Sissi to release prisoners who are especially vulnerable.

At least five other Americans are held on trumped-up charges in Egyptian prisons, according to the Freedom Initiative’s estimate. Separately Desouky’s brother, Nour, was arrested when visiting her last summer and remains in jail, Soltan said. Desouky’s son, Mustafa, refused to leave his incarcerated mother in Egypt, and missed school to spend the year waiting for her release with his extended family.

Since coming to power in 2013, President el-Sissi has waged a sweeping crackdown on dissent. Rights groups accuse Egyptian prosecutors of detaining people without evidence, denying them access to lawyers and a fair chance to appeal.

Also on Monday, Marwa Arafa, 27, an Egyptian translator and mother of a 21-month-old child, appeared before state prosecutors pending an investigation into charges she belongs to and helps to fund a “terrorist group,” her lawyer Islam Salama wrote on Facebook. She was not known to be politically active beyond advocacy work for child prisoners several years ago. Plainclothes security officers snatched Arafa from her Cairo apartment two weeks ago, said her husband Tamer Mowafy, and her family hadn’t heard from her since.

The Egyptian government has denied allegations of rights violations and justifies arrests of opposition figures on national security grounds.

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