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Congress and Political Prisoners: Condemning Iran, Helping Egypt

While Congress regularly denounces Iran for its human rights situation and its imprisonment of several American citizens, it ignores the appalling human rights situation in Egypt, where numerous American citizens have also been held.

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On Tuesday morning, family members of three Americans held prisoner by the Iranian authorities and relatives of another, Robert Levinson, who disappeared there years ago, testified before Congress. These are the people who most miss Saeed Abedini, Amir Hekmati, my friend Jason Rezaian—all dual Iranian-American nationals—and Levinson. “For over three years, our family has been living a nightmare,” Hekmati’s sister Sarah told the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Hekmati’s representative in the House, Dan Kildee (D-MI), has admirably taken up his case. “We need to continue to be insistent that if Iran wants to be taken seriously on this subject, or on their economic gains, or on their relationship with other states within the region or across the globe,” Kildee toldPolitico, “they can’t hold political prisoners.” The committee passed a non-binding resolution to that effect.

I say, “Great! Let a thousand flowers bloom. Condemn all the countries holding political prisoners, especially American ones; demand their releases; and don’t take seriously any nation that doesn’t comply. Lend your platform, Congress, to the voices of the families, the people who miss their loved ones most. Make sure every time an American official sits down with an official from a country holding Americans as political prisoners, the names are run down with all the gravity with which Arya Stark runs down her kill list on Game of Thrones.” It would be wonderful if Congress did that.

Unfortunately, although such concerns about political prisoners and miscarriages of justice in Iran are entirely justified, that’s not what Congress does. I want my government’s opposition to reprehensible actions like Jason’s imprisonment to be untainted by the hypocrisies of geopolitical cynicism. But it’s difficult to envision Congress’s laudable resolution as resulting from anything but.

More Egregious Cases among Allies

To understand the difficulty, one need only glance around Iran’s neighborhood. According to some estimates, for example, Saudi Arabia holds tens of thousands of political prisoners. Yet not only is the Kingdom taken seriously, the American government is selling it billions of dollars of arms to—get this—make sure Saudi feels secure amid the signing of a prospective nuclear deal with Iran.

Nothing, however, brings the naked cynicism into sharper focus than shifting one’s gaze between Iran and Egypt. Even as relatives of political prisoners in Iran were testifying on the Hill yesterday, Congress moved forward with lifting human rights restrictions on foreign aid to Egypt.

Congressional reporter Julian Pecquet, at the news site Al-Monitor, got the details. In past years, the State Department was required to certify that progress toward democracy in Egypt was being made. When it was clear last year that this couldn’t happen—because Egypt saw the opposite of progress—Congress let the administration waive the requirement, which it did. Now even that has become obsolete: there’s no need to certify anything, so there’s no need to waive the certification. Likewise with the requirement for “free and fair” elections—it’s gone. Egypt receives aid with “no strings attached”—except, of course, that it must keep its peace with Israel.

So what of Egypt’s political prisoners? Since the July 2013 coup that removed from power Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government—the first democratically elected one in Egyptian history—the security state has run amok, killing dissidents in droves, putting on mass show trials that end in harsh sentences, and, of course, taking political prisoners. The numbers on this political repression are astonishing.

“Thousands of political prisoners crowd Egyptian jails, including hundreds of liberal and secular activists who fought to make Egypt a democracy in 2011 and opposed the excesses of Mr. Morsi’s Islamist government,” reported a Washington Post editorial. “According to reports by human rights groups, torture of detainees is rampant and more than 80 have died in detention since the July 2013 coup. Overall, 1,800 civilians, including 1,250 members of the Muslim Brotherhood, were killed between June 2013 and the end of 2014, according to Egypt’s semi-official National Council for Human Rights.”

This is not a contest, but contrasting these sort of totals with Iran can be instructive. The year Iran’s Green Movement arose and the government brutally cracked down on it saw around 110 political killings of dissidents. Hadi Ghaemi, the head of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, estimates that “there are at least 500 political prisoners throughout the country at any given time,” with the emphasis in Ghaemi’s original e-mail. (Information on political prisoners in Iran with what hard data exists can be found at Human Rights Watch and Ghaemi’s ICHRI.) If political repression in Iran is a crisis—which it most certainly is—the word to describe Egypt’s situation escape me.

American Detainees in Egypt

Congressional hypocrisy on Egypt gets worse. Al-Monitor‘s Pecquet also obtained a May State Department report to Congress outlining a harrowing situation: in Egypt, the report says, “the overall trajectory of rights and democracy has been negative.” The report went on:

There are 15 U.S. citizens in jail in Egypt, most of whom are incarcerated on criminal charges. Four are dual nationals whose cases potentially have political overtones, including the case of American-Egyptian Mohamed Soltan.

According to Pecquet, one of the restrictions on releasing the aid Congress is seeking to lift was the requirement that Egypt release “American citizens who the secretary of state determines to be political prisoners and [dismiss] charges against them.” Soltan, thankfully, was freed last week and returned to the U.S., leaving three potential American political prisoners in Egypt, about which we haven’t heard a peep from Congress.

That means Egypt could well be holding just as many American political prisoners as is Iran. But instead of urging Egypt to free them, Congress is doing the opposite—burying their cases and heaping money upon the Egyptian dictatorship.

And remember this distinction, too: in an Iran deal, we are talking about lifting sanctions and releasing frozen Iranian funds to the Iranians. Whereas in Egypt, American legislators are seeking to buttress the dictatorship with billions of dollars to, among other things, buy arms. Lifting sanctions may give Iran more means to beef up repression, but in Egypt we, the United States, are funding it with America tax dollars.

It’s a shame that when Congress cries foul at Iranian political repression, the Iranian regime and its apologists can say that Congress is a bunch of hypocrites, that they don’t actually hold these principles dear, that they don’t apply them universally and instead pick and choose where to apply pressure based on political and ideological considerations. All indications are that, as much as it pains me to say it, the Iranian regime and its apologists will be right.

That’s a shame particularly for the Abedinis, the Hekmatis, and the Rezaians. And it’s a shame for the nameless, faceless Egyptian-Americans, whose political repression Congress is seeking to fund with their own tax dollars, and whose families haven’t been invited to testify on the Hill.

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