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Egyptian Court Sentences American Citizen Journalist to Life in Prison

Mohamed Soltan, a 25-year-old Ohio State University graduate, traveled to Egypt to care for his dying mother and was arrested while working as a translator for foreign journalists at pro-democracy demonstrations.

by Meredith Hoffman
Apr 11 2015, 2:10pm

Photo via Anadolu Agency/Contributor/Getty

Mohamed Soltan had just graduated from Ohio State University when his mother was diagnosed with cancer in her home country of Egypt. After hearing the news, he flew straight to Cairo to care for her. The idealistic 25-year-old, an American citizen who spoke Arabic, began translating for foreign journalists as pro-democracy demonstrations swept through the nation. Within months of his 2013 arrival in Egypt, a sniper shot him in the arm at a rally. Authorities arrested Soltan.

Today, an Egyptian court sentenced Soltan, along with dozens of others, to life in prison for allegedly supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, a banned political party. Soltan was held in solitary confinement while he awaited his sentencing on terrorism charges. 

"We've had a long time to process what's happening, but no matter how unjust it is it doesn't seem to be going away," Soltan's sister Hanaa Soltan told VICE News before the sentencing. "He never committed a crime… He was a citizen journalist, active on social media and helping journalists gather interviews and get information."

An Egyptian court charged Soltan, now 27, with membership in the "terrorist organization" the Muslim Brotherhood — a group not outlawed until after his August arrest — and with giving false information to media in efforts to destabilize the government. Soltan was never a Brotherhood member, and the charges are ludicrous, his sister said.

Saturday's sentencing is the latest in Egypt's harsh crackdown on any political opposition, especially the Muslim Brotherhood. Thousands of other people remain in prison without convictions. 

Related: Egypt's president awards woman who dressed as a man for 40 years to support family.

"At first we thought this is silly — the international community isn't going to let all these human rights abuses go on endlessly. But it never really stopped and it hasn't yet," Hanaa, a social worker in Washington DC, said.

The Egyptian court also sentenced 14 people to death, including Soltan's father, Salah Soltan, and a top Muslim Brotherhood leader, Mohammed Badie. Another 36 people received life in prison. A total of 529 alleged members of the Muslim Brotherhood were sentenced to death last March.

"Mohamed is in a desperate rough emotional state right now," Hanaa Soltan said. "He is alone 23 and a half hours a day. He only gets outside half an hour a day, when he gets to go outside and stretch his legs."

Soltan's father Salah, a native of Egypt who worked for the former government, is being held in the same prison as his son. At one point, Soltan's father was put in his same cell and acted as a "de facto nurse" since Soltan, on months of hunger strike, needed an IV. Now, however, Soltan is allowed no human contact, except for one 20-minute visit from his cousins and his mother each week.

"Mohamed is spiritual, he prays a lot and reads a lot of the books we send him," Hanaa said of her brother, who has also faced torture in the facility. "He's like a giant teddy bear, he was always really helpful to everyone around him."

Not only does Soltan have his family's support, but his friends have built a powerful social media and online presence with a Free Mohamed Soltan website. Human rights organization Reprieve has petitioned the United Nations working group on arbitrary detentions to put pressure on Egypt. The UN press office did not immediately return requests for comment.

But to Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council for American-Islamic Relations, the US government has not put adequate pressure on Egypt to end its onslaught of unjust sentences.

"Unfortunately the US is continuing military aid to Egypt even though we know the government is corrupt and it's only getting worse," Awad told VICE News. "I don't know why they keep supporting the regime."

Awad said he knew the US Department of State had spoken with Egypt about releasing Soltan, but insisted that "the US could have done more."

Related: Free flights save Egyptians in Libya from violence — and provide cheap vacations.

The State Department press office did not immediately return VICE News' requests for comment.

But Soltan's sister said she was satisfied with the attention American officials had given the case. Still, that didn't guarantee the outcome of her brother's fate.

"I'm cautiously optimistic only because I believe our government will do what it takes, but there's really no just system within Egypt," she said.

Follow Meredith Hoffman on Twitter: @merhoffman

VICE News' Olivia Becker contributed to this report.

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