Families of Americans Held by Allies Say U.S. Is Keeping Its Gloves On
In the United Arab Emirates, a Libyan-American father and son detained since 2014 on political charges said security agents tortured them in prison, with beatings and electric shocks.
In Egypt, a woman with dual Egyptian and American citizenship who started an organization to help street children has been imprisoned for almost two years after prosecutors accused her of abusing the youths, though the state produced no credible evidence, according to human rights groups.
In both cases, the families of the accused have complained of a lack of high-level attention from American officials — stemming, they fear, from the Obama administration’s reluctance to confront the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, which the United States views as two of its strongest strategic partners in the Arab world.
Their frustrations illustrate the distinct challenges faced by Americans imprisoned by their government’s allies. At home in the United States, their cases seem to stir less outrage than those of Americans detained by governments considered hostile, like Iran or North Korea, resulting in less pressure on the United States government.
And the notion that the detentions can be resolved in private, among friendly governments, can leave families confused about what role they should play.
As months of imprisonment have stretched into years for the detainees in Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, the relatives say, they have received little guidance from tight-lipped consular officials and avoided publicity out of concern it could undermine any negotiations.
Amal Eldarat, whose father and brother are in prison in the United Arab Emirates, said her family had kept quiet for months but decided to seek more publicity in the hope it might pressure the Obama administration to take more forcible action.
The treatment of her father, Kamal Eldarat, and her brother, Mohamed, “was a violation of every international law,” she said.
“The U.S. could be doing so much more,” Ms. Eldarat said.
State Department officials have said that they are closely following the trials in Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, and that they have raised concerns about the treatment of the Eldarats with senior Emirati officials.
The difficulties faced by the United States in freeing citizens from allied countries was highlighted last week when The National, a state-owned newspaper in the United Arab Emirates, said an American woman had been detained there for seven weeks on charges of “insulting the U.A.E. in public” — a misdemeanor, according to the newspaper.
The 25-year-old woman, who was not identified, told the court that the charges had arisen from her interaction with two men who “did not like the way she spoke to them,” though she also said that she had “refused to engage” with them and that she did not know why she was on trial, according to the report.
Nicholas McGeehan, a researcher at Human Rights Watch who has followed the cases of Westerners imprisoned in the Persian Gulf, said many of the families of the detainees faced a dilemma. The United States, as well as Britain and Canada, often advises families not to speak out because “private diplomacy is preferred,” he said.
“The concern we have is whether these countries are prioritizing their citizens’ interests, or their own strategic and business interests,” he added.
Efforts to free the detainees have been further complicated by increasingly fragile ties between the United States and some of its Arab partners.
American officials have worked since 2013 to repair their alliance with Egypt after initially criticizing the military’s ouster of Mohamed Morsi, the democratically elected president, as well as the deadly crackdowns on Mr. Morsi’s supporters that followed.
The United States has also had to assuage the United Arab Emirates and other Persian Gulf monarchies that were angered by the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran, the main regional rival of the gulf states.
The delicate approach to regional allies stands in sharp contrast to American efforts to free prisoners from Iran, Syria and Yemen over the last year.
In some cases, the negotiations have involved senior American officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry, and in others, the United States has called on foreign governments, like Oman, to act as intermediaries.
American officials say their lack of diplomatic relations with governments like Iran’s gives them fewer options for direct engagement than in Egypt or other friendly states, and requires a different approach.
The family of Aya Hijazi, the Egyptian-American, said American Embassy officials had visited her in prison and attended her court sessions.
Ms. Hijazi, a 29-year-old graduate of George Mason University in Virginia, was arrested in May 2014 with her husband and others who worked at Beladi, a nonprofit organization that Ms. Hijazi founded to care for Cairo’s street children.
The government accused Ms. Hijazi and the others of human trafficking and sexually abusing the children. A government forensic report showed that some of the children had been abused, but not when they were in the care of Ms. Hijazi’s organization, according to human rights groups monitoring the case.
A series of confounding procedural hearings have repeatedly delayed the start of the trial.
Rather, the arrest appears to be related to a wider government crackdown on nongovernmental groups that are regarded with suspicion in Egypt and accused of being front organizations for various foreign conspiracies.
Kamal Eldarat, left, and his son, Mohamed. They have been detained since 2014 in the United Arab Emirates. Credit Amal Eldarat, via Associated Press
Like the Eldarats, the Hijazis shunned publicity at first. The nature of the allegations made for explosive headlines, including some that referred derisively to Ms. Hijazi’s American citizenship.
Yet focus on the case faded in Egypt, and Ms. Hijazi’s family and friends have sought more attention, including by starting an online petition demanding that the State Department secure her release.
Brian Shott, a spokesman for the United States Embassy in Cairo, said officials were closely following Ms. Hijazi’s case and would continue to attend her court sessions.
In at least one other recent instance, the White House was successful in pressuring the Egyptian government to release an American citizen. But the detainee, Mohamed Soltan, was released only after he carried out a 16-month hunger strike, drawing international attention to his imprisonment.
Basel Hijazi, Ms. Hijazi’s brother, said European diplomats in Cairo had shown more interest than their American counterparts, who at one point gave the Hijazis a switchboard number at the embassy to call for questions or concerns.
“We expected more pressure,” Mr. Hijazi said.
Ms. Eldarat said her only contacts with the United States government had been with local consular officials in the months after her father and brother were arrested in the United Arab Emirates in August 2014.
The Eldarats were taken from their homes by Emirati security agents and kept from communicating with their family for months, she said. When her father finally spoke to his relatives, he described horrendous conditions in a state security facility where they were held.
“They electrocuted us, they deprived us of sleep, they beat us. These were the darkest days of my life,” Ms. Eldarat quoted her father as saying.
The Emirati authorities denied torturing the men. The family said the the charges appeared to stem from the Eldarats’ humanitarian support of Libyan antigovernment groups during the uprising against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi — support that placed them on the same side as the United States, which also backed the anti-Qaddafi rebels.
But as Libya descended into civil conflict over the last few years, Emirati officials backed an eastern Libyan faction and grew hostile to Libyans, including the Eldarats, associated with a rival western Libyan bloc, the family said.
The Obama administration has recently spoken out more robustly on the detentions. Mark Toner, a State Department spokesman, told reporters on April 7 that the United States was “concerned about several aspects” of the case, including allegations of abuse and a lack of American consular access after the arrests.
Washington had raised those complaints with the Emirati government, he said, adding, “We continue to call for an expeditious resolution to this case via a fair and transparent legal process in accordance with local law.”
The Eldarats face a maximum sentence of 15 years of prison. A verdict is expected next month.