CAIRO—A U.S. senator blocked $75 million in military funding this year to Egypt, citing insufficient progress on the country’s treatment of political prisoners, despite recent prisoner releases by President
Abdel Fattah Al Sisi.
(D., Vt.), chairman of the Senate appropriations committee, informed the State Department that he would put the money it approved on hold ahead of a Sept. 30 deadline for the release of the funds.
His team objected to the Biden administration’s assertion that the reported release of roughly 500 political prisoners in Egypt constituted “clear and consistent” progress on releasing political prisoners and providing detainees with due process of law. Human rights groups say that Mr. Sisi continues to oversee one of the globe’s harshest crackdowns on human rights, with at least 60,000 people being arrested or charged for political reasons.
As part of negotiations to release the funds, Mr. Leahy’s staff wanted the Egyptians to release a list of seven political prisoners within six months. Mr. Leahy’s team and the State Department were unable to agree on the list, resulting in the expiration of the funds.
“The situation facing political prisoners in Egypt is deplorable,” said Mr. Leahy, according to a statement provided by his staff. “We all have a responsibility to uphold the law and to defend the due process rights of the accused, whether here or in Egypt,” he added.
A representative for Egypt’s government couldn’t immediately be reached.
The $75 million withdrawal is a small part of more than $1 billion in military aid the U.S. provides to Egypt each year. Most of the money is released without conditions, but $300 million each year is contingent on Egypt’s human rights record. Of that, the State Department makes a determination on whether $205 million can go through.
Some of President Biden’s closest Democratic allies have called for tougher measures against the government of Egypt, a U.S. ally in the Middle East.
In the State Department’s evaluation this year, it withheld $130 million to penalize Cairo for its general human rights record for a second year in a row. while clearing $75 million that Mr. Leahy subsequently asked to withhold.
In its decision, the State Department cited what it called Egypt’s unprecedented release of hundreds of prisoners and the establishment of a presidential pardon committee. A State Department spokesman said in a statement Tuesday that there has been no change in its position that Egypt has made meaningful progress on political prisoners.
“We will continue to work closely with Congress as we engage on human rights with the Egyptian government,” said spokesman Mahmoud El-Hamalawy.
In interviews with The Wall Street Journal, recently released political prisoners recounted beatings, solitary confinement for long periods and other forms of physical and mental abuse by the Egyptian state.
Tim Rieser, an aide to Mr. Leahy, said the State Department didn’t provide the names of prisoners who were released or what they were accused of. He also said the department didn’t address more recent arrests by Egyptian authorities.
Mr. Rieser added that Egyptian activist Alaa Abdel-Fattah was among the seven political prisoners on the list that Mr. Leahy asked the Biden administration to focus on. Mr. Abdel-Fattah is one of Egypt’s most prominent pro-democracy activists and has been on hunger strike from jail for nearly 200 days.
Write to Chao Deng at Chao.Deng@wsj.com
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