Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Americans Look To Pence For Help In Releasing Their Relatives Jailed In Egypt


Vice President Mike Pence will travel to Egypt next month, and there's a group of Americans watching that trip very closely. They are the friends and relatives of people who've been swept up in arrests in Egypt over the past few years.

Human rights groups say there are tens of thousands of political prisoners in that country today, including nearly 20 Americans and some green card holders. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: In the lobby of the State Department, Aayah Khalaf is trying to raise awareness about her parents. They were about to move to Seattle when they were arrested at their seaside home in Egypt in June and put in a mass anti-terrorism trial. Khalaf says she still doesn't really know why they're being held.

AAYAH KHALAF: They're in, like, kind of a very small room without windows, without air ventilation. They have no access to food or getting outside to exercise. They don't see anyone. They're completely isolated from anyone else. No one is allowed to visit them - not us or the lawyer. That's basically what we know.

KELEMEN: She's particularly worried about her mother, who's from Qatar. The case against her began when Egypt, along with Saudi Arabia and others, broke ties with Qatar. And Khalaf fears her mom is a hostage in a diplomatic squabble.

KHALAF: She's lost a lot of weight. She's lost conscious two times, and they refuse to give her any medical care.

KELEMEN: Khalaf - who was born in Texas - knows the U.S. won't be able to get consular access to her parents. Though they are green card holders, they're not U.S. citizens. But she says they have eight family members who are, and that was the case she was making at the State Department's office on Hostage Affairs, along with attorney Jared Genser.

JARED GENSER: That office's responsibility includes helping not just American citizens actually, but also, explicitly, legal permanent residents with, quote, "strong ties to the United States." The situation of Hosam Khalaf and Ola al-Qaradawi very clearly falls within the mandate of this office and the responsibility of the United States government.

KELEMEN: They're also reaching out to the White House to try to get Vice President Pence to raise this case when he goes to Cairo. Praveen Madhiraju is trying to do the same for two of his clients, both U.S. citizens - a 52-year-old father of two from New York and a 27-year-old student. They've been in jail in Egypt since 2013 - part of a massive crackdown on protesters.

PRAVEEN MADHIRAJU: We've asked the White House to help these families multiple times over the past eight or nine months, and we haven't heard a thing from them.

KELEMEN: Madhiraju is an attorney with the nonprofit called Pretrial Rights International. He says Pence and the rest of the U.S. government should not sidestep this issue.

MADHIRAJU: He should demand the release of Mostafa Kassem, Ahmed Etiwy, all Americans and all political prisoners who were unjustly detained, and demand their full due process rights be honored.

KELEMEN: The State Department says it has been in contact with Egyptian authorities about these cases and takes its responsibilities seriously to assist U.S. citizens abroad. Officials won't say how many Americans are currently in jail in Egypt - a key U.S. ally and recipient of U.S. aid.

The ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Ben Cardin, met recently with Egypt's ambassador to talk about the country's poor record on human rights, including these mass detentions.

BEN CARDIN: They've gone through some really tough security issues, but for Egypt's own security - for their own stability, they need to be much stronger in protecting the rule of law and rights of its citizens.

KELEMEN: And Cardin says the U.S. should try to help Egypt find that balance. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.