Egypt justice minister rebuffs US envoy

January 31, 2012 - 5:55 PM
Mideast Egypt

Saad el-Katatni, a lawmaker from the Muslim Brotherhood and newly nominated Parliament Speaker, top, listens to memebers of Parliament during the first working session in the Egyptian parliament in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2012. Egypt's newly elected lawmakers have criticized the country's military rulers in their first working session for what they said was overstepping their legislative powers, issuing laws days ahead of its convening. The lawmakers were referring Tuesday to the decision by the military rulers in charge of the country's affairs since last year to issue a law regulating the presidential elections expected later this year. (AP Photo/Mohammed Abu Zaid)

CAIRO (AP) — The Egyptian justice minister returned a letter Tuesday from the U.S. Ambassador to Egypt asking him to re-examine the issue of Americans barred from leaving the country.

The snub is the latest in a spat between the allies over a politically charged Egyptian investigation into foreign funded groups.

Egyptian security forces raided 17 offices of 10 pro-democracy and human rights groups last month then barred at least 10 foreigners, including six Americans, from leaving the country.

Among those stuck in Egypt is Sam LaHood, son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. On Monday, three of the Americans took refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.

Egyptian Authorities have defended the raids as part of a legitimate investigation into the finances and work of foreign-funded groups.

Egyptian Justice Minister Adel Abdel-Hamid told the Egyptian parliament Tuesday that he returned a letter from U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson about the Americans barred from travel, saying it was not his issue and should not have come from her.

"I called the embassy and told them that this letter is not supposed to be directed to the minister of justice and that the ambassador is not the concerned party," Abdel-Hamid said, according to Egyptian state media. "The concerned party is the person forbidden to travel."

He said the letter should be addressed to the investigating judges.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner acknowledged that the letter had been returned, adding that the U.S. was still engaging with Egypt in the issue.

"We believe that it's important that they be allowed to travel freely, and that the conditions that have been placed on them are unfair," Toner told reporters. "These are onerous restrictions."

The U.S.-Egypt spat over foreign-funded groups comes as various groups jostle for power one year after the start of the uprising that ousted longtime President Hosni Mubarak on Feb. 11. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which took control when Mubarak stepped down, has faced frequent protests criticizing its handling of the transition and calling on it to pass power to civilians. The ruling generals have often blamed "foreign hands" for the protests.

At the same time, the long-banned Muslim Brotherhood is leading Egypt's newly elected parliament, seated last week.

Responding to the justice minister on Tuesday, Parliamentary speaker Saad el-Katatni of the Muslim Brotherhood said, "We don't accept this interference from the American ambassador."

American officials have pointed to recent U.S. legislation that freezes aid to Egypt unless the country meets certain conditions in its transition to democracy. These include allowing civil society groups to operate.

The U.S. is due to give $1.3 billion in military assistance and $250 million in economic aid to Egypt in 2012. Washington has given Egypt an average of $2 billion in economic and military aid a year since 1979, according to the Congressional Research Service.

___

Bradley Klapper contributed reporting from Washington.