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Bipartisan pair of Senators call on Egypt to address case of imprisoned human rights advocate

Bipartisan pair of Senators call on Egypt to address case of imprisoned human rights advocate
© Greg Nash

A pair of bipartisan Senators are pushing the Egyptian government to take action on the case of an imprisoned Egyptian human rights and religious freedom activist on charges that have been criticized as arbitrary, allegations of torture and amid increasing health concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Sens. Thom Tills (R-N.C.) and Chris CoonsChris Andrew CoonsDemocrats face increasing pressure to back smaller COVID-19 stimulus Biden rolls out national security team Democrats brush off calls for Biden to play hardball on Cabinet picks MORE (D-Del.), co-chairs of the Senate Human Rights Caucus, sent a letter to the Egyptian embassy in Washington, D.C., last month advocating on behalf of Ramy Kamel, a Coptic Christian and human rights advocate imprisoned since November 2019. 

Human rights groups say his imprisonment is an effort to silence his work on speaking out for religious minorities in Egypt. 

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“Mr. Kamel has dedicated his life to researching the plight of the Coptic community in Egypt and defending their religious liberties, and we fear his detention is a result of this activism,” the senators wrote in the letter obtained exclusively by The Hill. 

The Senators urged the Egyptian government to allow Kamel a fair trial or drop the charges and release him immediately. 

“We urge the Egyptian government, as a steadfast partner of the United States and supporter of religious liberty, to take action commensurate with the values professed in the Egyptian Constitution and compatible with American values regarding human rights,” they wrote. 

“Mr. Kamel has been held under the unclear charges of defamation, funding a terrorist organization, and the misuse of social media. We urge the Egyptian government to honor Mr. Kamel’s right to a fair trial or to release him entirely of the charges held against him,” they added. 

Steven Howard, National Outreach Director for In Defense of Christians, welcomed the effort by the Senators. 
 
"We applaud Senators Coons and Tillis for their advocacy for Ramy. It's time for Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi to do the right thing and release this innocent human rights advocate," he said. 

The call by the Senators was echoed on Thursday by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, who issued a statement calling for the “unconditional and immediate release” of Kamel and the recently arrested Mohamed Basheer.

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Basheer is a human rights advocate who was imprisoned on Nov. 15 on charges criticized as “spurious” — including spreading false information and joining and funding a terrorist organization. 

The arrests put at odds the U.S.’s support for Egypt — which received more than $1.4 billion in foreign assistance in 2020 — and its purported promotion and protection of religious freedom. 

“While Egypt’s recent initiatives to promote interfaith tolerance, protect religious heritage sites, and legalize hundreds of churches deserve support and encouragement, we cannot stand idly by while it continues to harshly punish honorable advocates for religious freedom and broader human rights,” USCRIF Vice Chair Tony Perkins said in a statement on Thursday. 

Coptic Christians are the largest Christian community in the Middle East, yet are only 10 percent of Egypt’s population of 92 million people. While Egypt’s constitution protects religious freedom as “absolute”, this group has come under attack by terrorist organizations like ISIS, Al Qaeda and its affiliates. 

And despite condemnation from the Egyptian government on violence against the Copts, the community and its churches have routinely come under attack in Egypt. 

Kamel, a Coptic Christian, founded the Maspero Youth Union, an organization that works toward achieving justice, ending discrimination against Coptics and documenting human rights abuses. 

Kamel was preparing in November 2019 to leave Egypt for Geneva, Switzerland, to testify at the United Nations Forum on Minority Issues when he was taken by security forces from his home in the early hours of the morning without an arrest warrant.

He was then allegedly beaten into providing his private information to access his electronics and deprived of his asthma and blood pressure medications, according to the United Nations, who issued a statement condemning Kamel’s arrest and calling for his immediate release. 

“No person should face intimidation, harassment or reprisals of any sort for participation in or contribution to the work of the UN and its human rights mechanisms,” experts with the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner said in a statement. 

“Mr. Kamel’s alleged arbitrary detention and torture fall into a pattern of raids, arrests and travel bans against human rights defenders, journalists, dissidents and their family members. Individuals who have cooperated or tried to cooperate with UN human rights mechanisms have been repeatedly the target of reprisals,” they continued, urging  the Egyptian government to comply with their obligations under international law. 

Updated 10:13 a.m.