How a former Egyptian prisoner is trying to take an ex-prime minister to court in the U.S.
 
 

Mohamed Soltan underwent a long and trying ordeal in Egypt. 

Raised in the US with dual Egyptian-American citizenship, Soltan, 32, is an Ohio State University graduate and the son of Salah Soltan, a prominent member of the Muslim Brotherhood who served as a deputy minister under President Mohamed Morsi. In the summer of 2013, following the ouster of Morsi and subsequent takeover by a military-appointed government, Soltan was volunteering as a translator for foreign reporters covering the mass sit-in held by Morsi supporters in Rabea al-Adaweya square. On August 13, he was shot in the arm during the forced dispersal of the sit-in by security forces. He was arrested on August 25 and later sentenced to life in prison on charges of belonging to a terrorist organization and conspiring to overthrow the regime.

In May 2015, after spending 643 days in prison, Soltan was released and flown to the United States after appeals from the Obama administration. A few days earlier, he was forced to relinquish his Egyptian citizenship, paving the way for his release under a legal decree that gives President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi the ability to deport foreign citizens convicted of crimes. Soltan now lives in Virginia and works with the Freedom Initiative, a DC-based human rights group. 

Two months ago, he decided to take the Egyptian government to task.

On June 1, Soltan filed a lawsuit in federal district court in Washington DC, accusing former Egyptian Prime Minister Hazem al-Beblawi of targeting him for attempted extrajudicial killing and for the “direction of and oversight” of acts of torture against him. Beblawi, who served as Egypt’s prime minister from 2013 to 2014, currently lives in DC, where he works as an executive director of the International Monetary Fund. 

According to details he filed in the lawsuit, during his 21 months in prison, Soltan was denied medical care for his bullet wound, beaten to unconsciousness, burned, held in solitary confinement, and forced to listen to the sounds of his father, who was also arrested on August 25, being tortured in a nearby cell. He lost more than 70 kilograms in weight over the course of a 16-month hunger strike to protest his imprisonment.

Both the governments of Egypt and the United States have intervened to try and have the case dismissed on the grounds that Beblawi is immune from suit, given his position as a diplomat and an executive director at the IMF.

Beblawi’s attorneys have also argued that the suit would “compromise the United States’ sensitive relationship with Egypt and pose a threat to significant long-standing policy interests,” according to a June 24 court filing.

The US court is expected to decide soon whether the high profile lawsuit can move forward. At stake is a case that would place allegations of Egypt’s use of violence and torture under the spotlight in the US court system and potentially subject not just Beblawi, but also current top Egyptian officials, to claims of compensation.

In the lawsuit, Soltan invoked the Torture Victims Protection Act (TVPA), a domestic US law passed in 1991 to implement requirements of the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The TPVA allows victims of torture of any nationality to file civil suits in US courts against those allegedly liable for torture or inhumane treatment that takes place anywhere in the world if the defendants are in the United States. 

Since the TPVA only allows for civil (as opposed to criminal) claims, the suits can result in monetary compensation for victims as opposed to any jail time for the perpetrators. The first TVPA case was brought in 1992 by Sister Dianna Ortiz, an American nun who was living and teaching literacy and religion to school children in Guatemala. She sued former Guatemalan general and Defense Minister Héctor Gramajo, charging him with the responsibility for her abduction, rape and other torture by military and security personnel in 1989. In 1995, a federal court in Massachusetts ruled in her favor, awarding her $5 million in damages.

Eric Lewis, the lead lawyer for Soltan, told Mada Masr that Beblawi was specifically targeted in the suit because he lives in the US and the TVPA can be applied to him.

Yet the lawsuit also names a number of “unsued” defendants who it alleges “acted in conspiracy” with Beblawi, including: “Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the current Egyptian President and former Deputy Prime Minister for Security and Defense Minister; Abbas Kamel, el-Sisi’s former Chief of Staff and current Director of The General Intelligence Service; Mohamed Ibrahim Mustafa, also known as Mohamed Ibrahim, the former Egyptian Minister of the Interior; Mahmoud Sayed Abdel Hamid Sha’rawi, the former Assistant Minister of Interior and Deputy Director of the National Security Agency and current Minister of Local Development; and, Tamer Al-Fergany, the former Attorney General of State Security Prosecution and current Head of the Anti-Corruption Authority.”

Sisi is immune from the lawsuit as long as he is head of state. However, under the TVPA, if the other named officials travel to the United States at any point they can be served with papers and be subject to suit.

On June 24, the Egyptian Embassy in Washington DC sent a letter to the State Department arguing that Beblawi is entitled to diplomatic immunity both because of his former position as prime minister and his current position as a diplomat representing Egypt at the IMF. “The effect of the District Court of the District of Columbia exercising jurisdiction in this case would be to seek a rule of law against the Egyptian state and is contrary to the principles of international law,” the letter states. It goes on to call on the US government to issue a “suggestion of immunity” to the court on behalf of Beblawi. 

Less than a month later, on July 17, Beblawi’s attorneys attached a “certification of immunity” issued by the State Department as part of a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. The State Department document, dated July 7, declares that Beblawi is a “Principal Resident Representative” of Egypt to the IMF effective from November 2, 2014. The State Department goes on to say that “principal resident representatives of members of a specialized agency are entitled to the same privileges and immunities as are accorded to diplomatic envoys accredited to the United States.” 

The State Department letter appeared to deal a blow to Soltan’s case, lending the weight of the US executive branch to Beblawi’s argument to dismiss the suit. But Soltan’s lawyers, members of Congress, and a former official who served at the State Department and on the National Security Council point to several troubling aspects in the filing that raise questions about the nature of the immunity claims.

The State Department did not file an official “suggestion of immunity” to the court as the Egyptian embassy had originally requested, but issued a letter from the State Department’s Deputy Director of the Office of Foreign Missions declaring Beblawi as a Principal Resident Representative (PRR) of Egypt to the IMF and that he has held that status for the past six years.

PRR is a category of diplomats that falls under the United Nations Headquarters Treaty. It requires a tripartite agreement from the UN sub-agency (in this case the IMF),  the country where the agency is located (the United States) and the country that is seeking accreditation (Egypt). 

In a July 20 court filing responding to the PRR claims, Soltan’s lawyers say there is “no assertion, much less evidence” that the IMF has agreed to Beblawi’s designation and further that there is no other official document that records his PRR status. 

“In the absence of proof of a tripartite agreement to his PRR status — and the evidence all suggests the IMF has not granted and, as a matter of institutional policy and practice, does not grant such status — Beblawi does not have diplomatic status immunity,” Soltan’s lawyers wrote in a subsequent August 10 filing.

Soltan’s lawyers also point to the fact that Beblawi is technically not Egypt’s appointee to the IMF but rather a representative of a regional bloc of 11 countries (Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Maldives, Oman, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen).

When Mada Masr contacted the IMF to ask whether they had in fact agreed to Beblawi’s designation as a PRR, Alistair Thomson, the chief of media relations at the IMF, said they are not commenting on the case as the “litigation is going.”

Soltan’s lawyers argue that Beblawi had previously raised at least five different immunity arguments since the case was first filed, yet in none of them did he claim PRR as a basis for immunity. “Something is wrong here,” Soltan’s lawyers argue in the filing. “If [Beblawi] had long been a Principal Resident Representative and entitled to diplomatic immunity, he surely would have known it and so argued to the Court.”

The State Department letter also does not make clear whether Beblawi’s status as a PRR was conferred in November 2014 or was conferred recently and is meant to be applied retroactively, which would raise questions as to why, and under what legal authority, the State Department would take such a step.

“If Beblawi had been PRR the whole time, he would have said so when he made his filing. He has claimed all sorts of reasons for immunity in the past including his visa status and his status as an executive director. He has never said he was a PRR,” Lewis tells Mada Masr. “I believe that is because he obtained it retroactively and neither the State Department nor Beblawi said so. The letter just says it is ‘effective November 2014.’ Has he had it the whole time and didn’t know about it? Or was it just given it to him and he was trying to hide it from the court?”

“Did the Department of State and the Foreign Ministry of Egypt decide that this was a low-visibility way to try to get the TVPA case against Beblawi dismissed?” Soltan’s lawyers ask in the filing.

That sentiment is echoed by Andrew Miller, a former State Department official who also served as the Director for Egypt and Israel Military Issues on the National Security Council under Obama. “The State Department’s decision strikes me as unusual in two respects,” Miller tells Mada Masr. “The State Department doesn’t normally operate this fast, particularly on a legal matter. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was pressure from senior leadership, up to and including President Trump and [Secretary of State]Pompeo, to expedite the process. Second, while I’m not a lawyer, I understand it’s somewhat unusual to grant immunity retroactively.”

“I suspect there was concern that Soltan’s case could weaken the U.S.-Egyptian relationship,” Miller adds.

Lewis says he hopes the court finds that the requirements for PRR status have not been met. “Having said that, the courts tend to be very deferential to the State Department, although it is not at all clear what the State Department is really saying in its ambiguous letter,” he tells Mada Masr.

According to the Washington Post, Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont recently asked the State Department to produce the notification from the Egyptian government regarding Beblawi’s designation as a PPR. “The Vienna Convention [diplomatic immunity] serves an important function and should be respected, but neither our government nor the IMF should do anything that would prevent justice in this case that is not required under the treaty,” Leahy told the Post.

Beblawi’s lawyers have argued in court filings that the State Department certification of immunity is conclusive. 

“Faced with the reality of the State Department’s firm response officially certifying that immunity, thus threatening his political agenda and media campaign, [Soltan] through his counsel cries foul and accuses everyone of conspiring to fabricate the evidence and fact of certified immunity,” Beblawi’s lawyers wrote in an August 3 filing. They have moved to dismiss the case and argue against Soltan’s request for the court to deny immunity. “This motion should be treated as what it is: a desperate attempt to delay dismissal of a politically motivated lawsuit against a fully accredited and immune diplomat,” they wrote.

Beblawi’s lawyers also argued that Soltan filed the suit “against the only former Egyptian public official he could find in the United States” and labeled the argument against Bebalwi’s immunity claims “groundless” and “a smokescreen to hide a failed case.” 

Mada Masr reached out to Beblawi’s lead lawyer, Tim Broas — who previously served as Obama’s ambassador to the Netherlands — for comment, as well as another lawyer representing Beblawi, Robert Bunzel, but received no response from either. Mada Masr also contacted the State Department to request an interview, which directed questions to the US embassy in Cairo. The US embassy did not respond to Mada Masr’s interview request.

Another point of contention regarding Beblawi’s immunity claims put forward by Soltan’s lawyers is the argument that the IMF designates a limited type of immunity — Official Acts Immunity — which only provides immunity for actions taken within the scope of official IMF duties.

“That’s why Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Christine Lagarde, both of whom were the top person in the IMF, were not immune,” Lewis said. Lagarde, who served as the managing director of the IMF between 2011 and 2019, was not granted immunity in a case filed in France over her role in a controversial 400 million euro payment to a businessman in 2008, when she was France’s finance minister, for which she was found guilty in 2016. Similarly, Lagarde’s predecessor, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who served as IMF chief from 2008 to 2011, was also not granted immunity in a case against him in France in which he was accused of a 2003 sexual assault.

Meanwhile, Beblawi is reportedly planning an early return from the US to Egypt, according to a source close to the prime minister who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity. According to the source, Beblawi, 83, has already requested a premature termination of his IMF contract for health reasons and is hoping for a peaceful retirement in Egypt.

In Egypt, Soltan’s lawsuit appears to have provoked retaliatory measures from the authorities. According to a statement filed by Soltan to the court, Egyptian security forces raided the homes of his relatives on June 15 and arrested five of Soltan’s male cousins, ages 20 to 24, and are holding them in remand detention. Soltan also said that on June 15, unidentified security forces visited his father in Wadi Natrun Prison, where he has been serving a life sentence, and interrogated him about several members of Soltan’s family. The next morning the authorities moved him to an undisclosed location, Soltan said. His whereabouts are still unknown. 

In response, the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs posted on Twitter: “We are concerned about reports that relatives of US citizen and former detainee Mohammad Soltan are facing acts of intimidation in #Egypt. We will continue to monitor the situation and take seriously all allegations of harassment and intimidation.”

Twenty-one human rights and other NGO groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, also released a joint statement about what they called the “ongoing harassment and intimidation by Egyptian security forces” of Soltan. “Egyptian security forces’ actions against Soltan’s family at the apparent direction of the Egyptian government appear to be an attempt to prevent Soltan from seeking justice, truth, and reparation in the United States,” the organizations said.

The news also prompted members of Congress to accuse Sisi of attacking the US judicial system. According to Foreign Policy, in a letter spearheaded by Rep. Tom Malinowski, 11 members of the House of Representatives called on Sisi and Egypt’s ambassador to the United States, Yasser Reda, to release Soltan’s family members and to reaffirm Soltan’s right to sue Beblawi under US law. The lawmakers deemed the arrests a “transparent attempt to interfere with and undermine a judicial process in the United States.” Lawmakers said the actions by Egyptian security forces “can only be interpreted as an effort to intimidate [Soltan] into dropping” the lawsuit, according to Foreign Policy.

As it currently stands, the case is in the hands of the judge, who will either grant Beblawi’s immunity request or deny it.

If the lawsuit is allowed to proceed, then Soltan’s lawyers will eventually be able to take Beblawi’s deposition under oath, request documents from him, and the case would eventually go to a jury trial. If Beblawi refuses to cooperate with the court proceedings or leaves the country, Soltan would receive a default judgment which would mean he would have a court ruling for compensation that could be enforced anywhere in the world that Beblawi has assets. It would also have implications for the other Egyptian officials named in the suit if they ever travel to the United States.

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