Lawmakers want review of aid to Egypt after Americans sentenced

Members of Congress called on the Obama administration to reconsider aid to Egypt after a court on Tuesday sentenced 16 Americans to prison for allegedly seeking to undermine the government.

Hawkish Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) urged a “comprehensive review” of the $1.5 billion in annual U.S. aid after 43 non-governmental organization (NGO) workers were sentenced to prison terms as long as five years. And the top senator on Middle Eastern affairs, Sen. Bob Casey (D-Penn.), warned that the ruling would have a “serious impact” on Washington's relationship with Cairo unless the government of President Mohammed Morsi overturns it.

“If left unchanged, this ruling would have significant negative implications on U.S.-Egypt relations, and we urge the Obama Administration to condemn this conviction in the strongest possible terms,” the three Republicans said in a joint statement. “In light of today’s events, the Congress must conduct a comprehensive review of U.S. assistance to Egypt.”

The Obama administration denounced a “politically motivated trial” but stopped short of overt threats.

“The United States is deeply concerned by the guilty verdicts and sentences, including the suspended sentences, handed down by an Egyptian court today against 43 NGO representatives in what was a politically motivated trial,” said Secretary of State John Kerry. “This decision runs contrary to the universal principle of freedom of association and is incompatible with the transition to democracy.”

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The 16 Americans include the son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. Most of them – including Sam LaHood – were sentenced in absentia, having sought refuge at the U.S. embassy in Cairo and subsequently left the country shortly after the charges were first announced during the period of military rule last year. Only Robert Becker, a staffer with the National Democratic Institute, stayed behind in solidarity with the NGOs' Egyptian staffers and was sentenced to two years in prison.

In the House, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), a congressional appropriator and co-chairman of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, took to the floor to call for an end to U.S. aid.

“If this decision stands, not a penny more of U.S. taxpayer money should go to the Muslim Brotherhood-led government in Cairo,” Wolf said. “I call on … President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry to personally raise this travesty of justice with the Egyptian president, Mr. Morsi, and I would urge every member of the House and Senate to send a letter to the Egyptian government to protest what happened.”

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, however, told The Hill that drastic action was ill-advised. In particular, he called for a continuation of the $1.3 billion in yearly aid to the military, which Engel described as a potential bulwark against Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood government. 

“Egypt's a very important country,” Engel said. “I have a lot of concerns about the direction they're taking, but I think we have to weigh carefully anything we do.”

Tuesday's ruling also ordered the closure of the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and Freedom House and the seizure of their assets.

NDI said it was “shocked and deeply distressed” by the “unjust conviction.” 

“The work of these 43 individuals to strengthen and support democracy in Egypt should be commended, not prosecuted,” the organization said in a statement. “The verdict also has a chilling effect on the important efforts of civil society in Egypt.

“NDI intends to appeal this decision and hopes that the court’s decision will be overturned. The Institute will do whatever it can to clear the names of its innocent employees.”

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