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Senators call on Trump to issue 'immediate' sanctions after US citizen dies in Egyptian jail

Mustafa Kassem, American citizen who had been held in Egyptian prison for past five years, died on Monday after series of hunger strikes
Chris Van Hollen, one of two US senators who penned letter on Thursday, had long advocated release of Mustafa Kassem (AFP/File photo)

Two US Senators called on President Donald Trump to "immediately" sanction Egypt over the recent death of Mustafa Kassem, an American citizen who had been held in an Egyptian prison for five years.

Democratic Senators Chris Van Hollen and Patrick Leahy in a letter to Trump called for immediate visa restrictions against Egyptian government officials involved in the detention of Kassem, who died on Monday after a series of hunger strikes.

"Mustafa Kassem’s death was a needless tragedy, after years of unconscionable mistreatment at the hands of Egyptian authorities," the senators wrote. 

Moustafa Kassem's death was due to 'failures by the Trump administration'
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Van Hollen and Leahy also called on the president to make a statement declaring Egypt's treatment of Kassem "a gross violation of internationally recognized human rights" and to impose Global Magnitsky Act sanctions on those responsible for Kassem's death. 

The Global Magnitsky Act is a human rights bill passed by Congress in 2016 that allows the US government to sanction foreign officials implicated in human rights abuses around the world.

Kassem, a dual Egyptian-American citizen, was arrested in Cairo in August 2013 after a military coup that brought Sisi to power.

Kassem said he was wrongfully detained by Egyptian soldiers when he happened to be at a shopping centre near demonstrations at Cairo's Rabaa al-Adawiya square.

After spending more than five years in pretrial detention, he was sentenced to 15 years in jail in a mass trial involving hundreds of defendants. 

"Egyptian officials never presented any evidence implicating Kassem - because there was none," the senators wrote in their letter to Trump on Thursday. 

Both senators have long followed Kassem's case, with Van Hollen having met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi over the summer to discuss his release. 

At a news conference on Wednesday, Van Hollen called Kassem's death a "killing" enabled by "failures by the Trump administration" to apply the necessary pressure to secure his release and the release of other Americans detained in Egypt.

Before his death, Kassem had written letters to Trump and Vice President Mike Pence asking them to secure his freedom. 

Since 2013, Sisi's government has overseen a broad crackdown on dissent, with as many as 60,000 people jailed.

Still, Trump has repeatedly heaped praise on the Egyptian leader, even calling him "my favourite dictator".

"This killing should serve as a wake-up call," Van Hollen said on Wednesday. 

On Monday, when asked if the Trump administration planned "to do anything to penalise the Sisi government" over Kassem's death, a senior State Department official told reporters it was "still premature to talk about that".

"We are really concerned about this and we're going to talk about it, about what we're going to do. We haven't decided yet," the official said. 

There are said to be at least six US citizens currently held in Egyptian prisons. 

Egypt is the second-biggest recipient of US military aid after Israel, receiving $1.4bn every year.

While the US has cut aid to Egypt in the past, citing human rights concerns, the Trump administration has waived human rights conditions that have applied to some $300m in aid.