Mohamed Soltan, a 27-year-old dual US-Egyptian citizen, was not in court when Judge Mohamed Nagi Shehata sentenced him to life imprisonment this past weekend.
He has been on a hunger strike for more than a year to protest his jailing by Egyptian authorities, days after security forces in August 2013 broke up the Rabaa protest camp. Participants were demonstrating against the military coup that took place one month prior, in which hundreds of protesters were killed and Soltan himself was shot in the arm.
Since then, sweeping arrests by security forces and prosecutions by Egypt’s judiciary have affected as many as 42,000 people, according to some watchdog groups. Dozens of others were given life sentences in Cairo on Saturday, while 14 members of the Muslim Brotherhood, including leader Mohamed Badie and Soltan’s father Salah, were sentenced to die.
“Our family is both horrified and deeply saddened by the sentence,” Hanaa Soltan, Mohamed’s sister, tweeted from her home in the United States. Noting that she and her family had “always placed absolutely zero faith in the ability of a deeply politicised Egyptian judiciary to consider Mohamed’s case fairly”, Hanaa reiterated calls for the US government to facilitate a humanitarian release for her brother, whose hunger strike has caused “irreparable damage to his body”, according to American diplomats working on his case.
Calls for the US to step in on Soltan’s behalf have not gone totally unanswered. Both President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry called for his unconditional release on humanitarian grounds after he began his hunger strike.
“The case had a low profile until he started his hunger strike, with the Egyptians reluctant to even admit he was being held,” said Waleed Nassar, a senior associate with Lewis Baach PLLC, the law firm representing Soltan in the US. This led to “an uphill battle where you have to prove your client exists”, Nassar told Al Jazeera.
“Some [American] congressmen told us the Egyptian ambassador denied that Egypt was holding Soltan in prison on at least two occasions,” said Nassar, who specialises in international dispute resolution.
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This occurred even after Soltan wrote a letter from prison to Obama, published by the New York Times, in which he noted: “I often get asked sarcastically by judges, officers, and even inmates, ‘Where is this first world country that takes such pride in defending human rights and freedoms? Where are they now to help you?’ Of course I am left speechless every time.”
Soltan was arrested after participating in a media panel that reported violations committed by Egypt’s security forces during the bloody dispersal of the Rabaa sit-in, in what Human Rights Watch called the worst massacre in Egypt’s modern history. He was accused of spreading “false information to destabilise the country” and “funding the Rabaa al-Adawiya sit-in”, which the government says harboured “terrorists”.
After he began his hunger strike, the US government began to address Soltan’s case publicly, and State Department officials began hosting meetings with the Soltan family in Washington. Still, the US has come under criticism for not doing enough to secure his release.
“We have raised and continue to raise Mr Soltan’s case to the Egyptian government. We reiterate our call for the immediate release of Mr Soltan on humanitarian grounds and for the facilitation of his return to the United States,” a State Department official told Al Jazeera via email. “We will continue to provide all possible consular services to Mr Soltan, which include working to ensure he has access to appropriate care and maintaining regular consular access.”
The State Department is not telling us much, just that it continues to be raised at high levels and that it is a top priority for the staff in Cairo.
But given Egypt’s close relationship with the US – particularly its dependence on a yearly military aid package – Soltan’s family members and their supporters have found it difficult to understand why the US has yet to secure his release, or at least have his conditions in prison improved.
“One who is results-oriented would say that not enough pressure has been applied [by the US government],” Hanaa Soltan told Al Jazeera. “The State Department is not telling us much, just that it continues to be raised at high levels and that it is a top priority for the staff in Cairo.”
Soltan’s hunger strike, which has brought international attention to his plight, has resulted in Egyptian authorities taking harsh measures against him, including beatings, placing him in solitary confinement, refusing to grant him access to proper medical care, and even attempting to convince him to commit suicide, the family says.
Claims by Egyptian politicians that the case was being handled by an independent Egyptian judiciary ignore the heavily politicised atmosphere in post-coup Egypt, according to Nassar and Hanaa Soltan. The judges who have taken on these cases amount to “judicial activists”, seeking to help the president fulfil his pledge to eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood and to “target activists supportive of the  revolution”, Nassar said.
Analysts have also cited the political nature of the judiciary proceedings since the mass arrests began in the summer of 2013.
“The judiciary has certainly been reactive to the overall political atmosphere in Egypt,” Nathan Brown, a political science professor at George Washington University and non-resident senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Al Jazeera.
With a public atmosphere nearing hysteria about the Muslim Brotherhood, along with the fact that the judiciary “is part of the state apparatus that felt threatened by the Brotherhood during its brief time in power, it is not surprising that you get these kinds of harsh verdicts”, Brown said – even among people who may not be part of the group, but may appear to share sympathies with them.
Judge Shehata, in particular, has made a name for himself for handing sweeping death sentences to hundreds of people in a courtroom at a time, and for presiding over the case of three Al Jazeera English journalists – Peter Greste, Baher Mohamed and Mohamed Fahmy.
The journalists were sentenced to 7 to 10 years’ imprisonment for “spreading false news”, a charge the network strenuously denies.
One possibility for Soltan is for the US government to take advantage of a presidential decree issued by Sisi’s government, giving him the ability to deport inmates standing trial back to their home country.
But this has raised questions about whether Soltan would have to renounce his Egyptian nationality – something Fahmy, who was a dual Canadian-Egyptian national, did in hopes of securing his release. Despite this, Fahmy still faces a retrial.
Meanwhile, well over a year into Soltan’s hunger strike, his lawyers in Egypt have pledged to appeal the life sentence. But without pressure from the US government, the family fears the case could remain in limbo amid a polarised political atmosphere in Egypt, while concerns over potential comas and organ failure serve as a daily reminder of the plight of hundreds of detainees in Egyptian jails.