Pompeo urges Egypt to keep American prisoners safe from coronavirus

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at a press briefing at the State Department in Washington, U.S., April 22, 2020. Nicholas Kamm/Pool via REUTERS

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stressed to his Egyptian counterpart on Thursday that Americans detained in Egypt should be kept safe during the coronavirus pandemic, the State Department said.

The State Department did not give any details about the prisoners, but three Americans held in Egypt were mentioned in a letter by a bipartisan group of U.S. senators sent to Pompeo this month asking him to call for the release of Americans detained in several countries, citing the risk from the virus.

Pompeo, in his call with Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, “emphasized that detained U.S. citizens be kept safe and provided consular access during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the State Department said in a statement.

COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus, has killed more than 175,000 globally, according to the World Health Organization. In Egypt, the disease has killed 276 people and infected more than 3,600, the WHO said.

Egyptian-American medical student Mohamed Amashah, one of the prisoners mentioned in the U.S. lawmakers’ letter, has been awaiting trial for more than a year on charges of misusing social media and helping a terrorist group. Last month Amashah, who suffers from an autoimmune disease and asthma, started a hunger strike to draw attention to his plight, his parents said.

There are 114,000 prisoners in Egypt, according to a recent U.N. estimate.

Some rights groups, lawyers, and current and former prisoners say inmates are often kept in cramped, dirty cells and lack running water, adequate ventilation and healthcare: conditions ripe for the rapid transmission of disease.

In January, the United States confirmed the death of Egyptian-American Moustafa Kassem in a prison in Egypt where he had been in custody since 2013, and vowed to continue raising concerns over Cairo’s poor human rights record.

Reporting by Mohammad Zargham; Editing by Leslie Adler