State Department: Detained foreign NGO workers have left Egypt

A group of workers for non-governmental organizations (NGO), who had been detained in Egypt and threatened with prosecution, have left the country, the Obama administration confirmed Thursday.

The U.S. government provided an airplane for the group, which had been blocked from leaving since January and included Sam LaHood, son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

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"We are very pleased that the Egyptian courts have now lifted the travel ban on our NGO employees," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nunland said during a press briefing. 

"The U.S. government has provided a plane to facilitate their departure and they have left the country," she continued. "They are currently en route home." 

LaHood, director of the Washington-based International Republican Institute’s (IRI) Egyptian program, had been working in Egypt for about a year and half on efforts to promote democracy.

Egyptian authorities detained the NGO employees over charges they did not register their organizations with the government or disclose their receipt of foreign funding.

The IRI said in a statement that it was celebrating the release of the group of NGO workers that included the transportation secretary's son, but the organization said it remained "very concerned" about its other employees in Egypt.

“IRI views the decision as a positive development but remains very concerned about the situation and our Egyptian employees along with the continuing investigations of Egyptian civil society groups and the impact it will have on Egypt’s ability to move forward with the democratic transition that so many Egyptians have sought,” the IRI statement said.

Transportation Secretary LaHood did not comment much on the situation involving his son during the duration of the diplomatic standoff with Egypt, other than to say that the administration and Congress were both working to resolve the issue. On Thursday, he said he was looking forward to seeing his son again. 

“I’m pleased the court has lifted the travel ban and am looking forward to my son’s arrival in the U.S," he said in a statement that was provided to The Hill.  "I’d like to thank everyone for their thoughts and prayers during this time.”

A bipartisan group of senators that had criticized the Egyptian government for prohibiting the NGO workers from leaving the country also praised the group's release, but said they were concerned for other employees who are still in the country. 

"We welcome the decision today by the Egyptian judiciary to lift the travel restrictions on American and other foreign employees of international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Egypt, including the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute," Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), John Hoeven (R-N.D.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said in a statement. 

"We are pleased and relieved that these individuals are now able to return home to their families," the lawmakers continued. “At the same time, we remain concerned about the fate of the many Egyptian employees who have worked for these NGOs and who remain in Egypt, where they are still subject to trial. These men and women have worked tirelessly on behalf of their fellow Egyptians to defend democracy, civil society, human rights, and the rule of law in their country. We will continue to advocate for the rights of these Egyptian NGO workers, who have done no wrong." 

Nunland said the State Department still had reservations about the status of NGO employees in Egypt. 

"The departure of our people doesn't resolve the legal case or the larger issues concerning the NGOs," she said. "We remain deeply concerned about the prosecution of NGOs in Egypt and the ultimate outcome of the legal process. And we will keep working with the Egyptian government on these issues." 

—Jeremy Herb contributed to this report. This post was updated with new information at 5:38 p.m.