American action is required to end the imprisonment and torture of Egypt’s ‘T-Shirt Detainee’


Mahmoud Hussein has endured 10 years of physical and emotional torture in Egypt for wearing a T-shirt with an anti-torture slogan to a rally. He will likely endure more, unless the international community, including the United States, successfully places enough pressure upon the Egyptian government to end this shameful and continuous injustice against the 28-year old, who has family ties to the U.S.

The outrageous story of Hussein — the “T-Shirt Detainee” — has reached a breaking point recently. His trial was adjourned until April 23, at which point he will have spent 1,027 days in arbitrary pretrial detention. Hussein is being tried before Egypt’s Emergency State Security Court on frivolous charges, which the prosecution has yet to formally file before the courts or share with his legal team. He remains subject to further physical and emotional torture and is being denied help for the critical medical care he needs. (Full disclosure: Our organization, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, is representing Mahmoud before the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.)

Hussein, a student and artist, was first arbitrarily arrested and detained in 2014 for wearing a shirt with the slogan “a nation without torture.” Torture, as has been widely documented, is often used in Egypt as a tool for repressing dissent. In fact, a Human Rights Watch report found a systematic use of “beatings, electric shocks, stress positions, and sometimes sexual assault” by state operatives in detention facilities. The U.S. State Department’s 2022 Country Report on Human Rights Practices in Egypt and the concluding observation of the U.N. Committee Against Torture corroborate these findings.

In reprisal for his campaign against torture, Hussein was subjected to beatings, electric shocks to his private parts and other forms of inhumane and degrading treatment. He continues to suffer from the medical and psychological impact of his experiences.

After 789 days of pre-trial detention, Hussein was released on bail in March 2016. He returned to school and established a small business producing T-shirts and artwork. However, during a job application process in 2019, Hussein was informed that his background check results detected a verdict had been entered against him by the Emergency State Security Court — a court that was not operational when he was arrested in 2014. Hussein and his family were shocked to find out that the court adopted a two-page judgment and subsequently sentenced him to life imprisonment, all without informing him or his lawyers about the trial or providing them an opportunity to present a defense. This judgment did not reference the breach of any law or evidence supporting the prosecutors’ accusations.

Last August, more than seven years after his release, Hussein was returning to Cairo after the happy milestone of proposing to his girlfriend when he was rearrested after crossing a security checkpoint. He’s been held in arbitrary detention ever since without access to needed medical and psychological care.

This absurd sequence of events is emblematic of the Egyptian government’s complete intolerance of active citizenship and democratic participation. Like Hussein, tens of thousands are held in pretrial detention in Egypt, and some have lost their lives from the cruel and inhumane treatment that they’ve had to endure in detention.

In 2015, RFK Human Rights petitioned the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, establishing how Egypt has repeatedly violated Hussein’s fundamental rights and ignored international law standards. The petition establishes that Mahmoud’s arrest was in direct reprisal for exercising his fundamental right to freedom of expression and opinion. Our organization updated the UNWGAD following his latest arrest and continues to lead advocacy for his release. But more must be done.

Stories like Mahmoud Hussein’s are sadly too common. In 2021, we represented another Egyptian student, Ahmed Samir Santawy, who was arrested and detained for over 18 months and ultimately sentenced to four years’ imprisonment for supposedly “spreading false news” on social media. After obtaining a favorable decision from the UNWGAD in his case, and following international advocacy, Santawy received a presidential pardon and was released from detention. However, he continues to be subject to a travel ban.

Today, as human rights advocates, we ask the United States government to leverage its bully pulpit to decry Hussein’s situation and urge the Egyptian government to end his unjust detention by granting him unconditional release and access to the medical and psychosocial care of his choosing.

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There is a popular proverb in Egypt: There is none more blind than he who doesn’t want to see.

Members of Congress, American officials: It’s time to see yourselves and make them see. Make the world see Mahmoud Hussein’s pain and the atrocities of the Egyptian government’s actions, so that never again can this be allowed to happen with the world standing by. Ten years is far too long.

Kerry Kennedy is president of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights. Ikechukwu Uzoma is staff attorney for Africa at the organization.

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