A group of over 55 US lawmakers in the House of Representatives and the Senate called on Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi Monday to release a slew of prisoners of conscience over humanitarian concerns.

In a letter being sent to the Egyptian leader on Monday, the 55 Democrats and one Independent – Senator Bernie Sanders – said al-Sisi should free detained lawyers, activists, journalists and other prisoners of conscience amid a COVID outbreak in Egypt’s prison system.

Led by Democratic lawmakers Ro Khanna, Jim McGovern and Sherrod Brown, the bicameral letter urges Sisi “to immediately and unconditionally release those prisoners whose cases we have cited, and all other prisoners of conscience unjustly detained for exercising their fundamental human rights.”

“These are people who should never have been imprisoned in the first place,” they wrote. “Hostage-taking is illegal and unacceptable under any circumstances.”

The letter specifically cites the detentions of activist Alaa Abdel Fattah, his sister, Sanaa Seif; human rights lawyers Mohamed el Baqer, Mahienour el Massry and Haitham Mohamedeen; politician and journalist Khaled Dawoud; researchers Ibrahim Ezz-Eldin, Patrick George Zaki, Hazem Hosny; journalists Esraa Abdel Fattah, Solafa Magdy, Hossam al-Sayyad, Mustafa Al-Khateeb and Mahmoud Hussein; and Coptic Christian activist Ramy Kamel.

“These are only a few of the many prisoners of conscience facing life-threatening health risks in Egyptian prisons,” the letter says.

Noting that Egypt remains the second-largest recipient of US foreign aid, Khanna said “U.S. lawmakers have a special responsibility to press the Sisi government to free political prisoners and end its systematic human rights violations.”

“President Sisi must release human rights activists, lawyers and other prisoners of conscience before they face a COVID-19 death sentence behind bars,” he said in a statement accompanying the letter.

The letter comes as US President Donald Trump has repeatedly declined to publicly pressure or criticize al-Sisi amid a deluge of human rights concerns. He jokingly referred to Sisi in 2019 as “my favorite dictator,” according to the Wall Street Journal.

Since al-Sisi took power, courts across the country have issued death sentences against hundreds of opponents of his government, but most of the verdicts have been overturned.

After carrying out 15 executions earlier this month amid mass anti-government demonstrations, 35 other political defendants who have been sentenced to death in different cases await execution.

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