May 18, 2006

US urges Egypt to free opposition leader Nour

By Sue Pleming

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States strongly condemned
close ally Egypt on Thursday for keeping opposition leader
Ayman Nour in prison and called for his immediate release on
humanitarian grounds.

Hours earlier, Egypt's highest court threw out an appeal
for a retrial by Nour, a former election challenger to
President Hosni Mubarak, who was sentenced to five years in
prison in December. He cannot file another appeal.

"The Egyptian Government's handling of this case represents
both a miscarriage of justice by international standards and a
setback for the democratic aspirations of the Egyptian people,"
said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.

He cited serious U.S. concerns over Nour's deteriorating
health and urged the Egyptian government to release him on
humanitarian grounds.

"We continue to follow Mr. Nour's case closely and to
engage the Egyptian government to advocate for his release and
for appropriate medical care prior to that release," said
McCormack, adding Nour suffered from diabetes and kidney

It was the third time this month that the State Department
has publicly criticized Egypt over its human rights record, its
crushing of political dissent and a lack of reform.

McCormack said Washington was deeply troubled by repeated
instances of police violence against peaceful demonstrators in
Egypt, which gets nearly $2 billion in U.S. aid each year.

"Both Mr. Nour's ongoing detention and the Egyptian
government's handling of dissent raise serious concerns about
the path to political reform and democracy in Egypt," he said.

The United States has pumped more than $60 billion of aid
into Egypt since 1979, but many in Congress are growing
impatient with Cairo over the slow pace of reform.

Even so, the Bush administration has made clear it does not
want to cut back aid to Egypt, saying such a move would
threaten U.S. national interests.

"We believe at this point that the current aid levels, as
well as the areas in which that money is spent, are
appropriate. We do derive some benefits from those aid
programs," said McCormack.

He cited help from Egypt in trying to push forward the
Middle East peace process and stressed that Egypt would remain
a close friend, despite its internal problems.

"The role we see for ourselves is as a friend of Egypt to
continue to urge them, push them, cajole them in the right
direction, and when we see problems, speak out very clearly
about them," he added.