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US lawmakers urge Pompeo to take action over arbitrary detentions in Egypt

In letter to secretary of state, dozens of US lawmakers say at least 15 citizens and permanent residents are detained in Egypt
Ola al-Qaradawi and Hosam Khalaf have been detained without charge since June 2017 (Courtesy of Aayah Hosam)

A bipartisan group of United States lawmakers has raised concerns about the arbitrary detention of more than a dozen US citizens and permanent residents in Egypt, among other alleged human rights abuses taking place in the country.

In a letter to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday, 46 members of the US House of Representatives said they "cannot ignore abuses of fundamental human rights" under Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's government.

“There are an estimated 15 or more US citizens … and legal permanent residents who are still detained in horrendous conditions and deprived of fundamental due process rights,” reads the letter, signed by Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Democratic Congressman Ted Deutch, among others.

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The lawmakers pointed to the case of Ola al-Qaradawi and her husband, Hosam Khalaf, who have been detained without charge or trial since June 2017.

The couple's detention "lacks a legal basis," the lawmakers wrote in the letter, citing a United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention report.

Last week, Qaradawi's daughter, Aayah Hosam, helped launch an email-writing campaign to urge members of Congress to apply pressure on Egypt to release the couple.

Hosam told Middle East Eye at the time that the US State Department and President Donald Trump's administration "have the power" to get them released.

"They do have the leverage, but they're not using it the way they should," Hosam said.

In a statement on Wednesday, Hosam said she hoped Pompeo would listen to the appeal from Congress and "take immediate steps to ensure human rights issues that impact US citizens and families are a top priority in the US-Egypt relationship".

“My parents’ plight is increasingly desperate, and I cannot stand by while their illegal detention drags on with no end in sight," she said.

'Human rights crisis'

Human rights groups have widely condemned Egypt's human rights record, with Amnesty International saying the country's "human rights crisis continued unabated" in 2018.

The Egyptian authorities have been accused of using torture, forced disappearances and other ill-treatment against hundreds of people, as well as launching a crackdown on civil society actors and non-governmental organisations, Amnesty said.

"Arbitrary arrests and detentions followed by grossly unfair trials of government critics, peaceful protesters, journalists and human rights defenders were routine. Mass unfair trials continued before civilian and military courts, with dozens sentenced to death," Amnesty said.

Despite this, Cairo remains one of Washington's top allies in the region and the state department announced in July that it would release $195m in military aid to the North African country.

Last year, Trump described Sisi as being "very close" to him and called to congratulate the Egyptian president on his re-election in April, despite widespread accusations that Sisi had purged opposition candidates ahead of the vote.

In that call in April, the White House said "the two leaders affirmed the strategic partnership between the United States and Egypt," Reuters reported at the time.