CAIRO – The son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is among 19 Americans being referred to criminal trial for allegedly receiving foreign funds illegally and being involved in banned activity in Egypt, several news agencies reported Sunday.
In all, Egyptian officials say 44 non-governmental organization workers will be put before the court after investigating judges claimed they had reason to try the democracy and rights workers.
The move is likely to further sour relations between Egypt's military rulers and the United States, the Arab nation's chief western backer for more than 30 years. On Sunday, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the diplomatic agency was trying to learn more.
"We have seen media reports that judicial officials in Egypt intend to forward a number of cases involving U.S.-funded NGOs to the Cairo criminal court. We are deeply concerned by these reports and are seeking clarification from the government of Egypt," Toner said.
Sam LaHood is head of the Egypt office of the Washington-based International Republican Institute. Two other American NGOs, Freedom House and the National Democratic Institute, along with more than a dozen foreign groups, were raided in late December as part of a move that American officials say is unhelpful as Egypt transitions from an autocratic rule over the past 30 years.
All 19 of the U.S. aid workers sought shelter in the U.S. embassy in Cairo more than a week ago after they were denied the opportunity to leave the country. LaHood said at the time that the group was "expecting the worst."
"If it does go to trial, a trial could last up to one year in a case that's as wide-ranging as this one is. But the penalty for that is six months to five years in jail so these are very serious charges," he told Fox News.
On Sunday, IRI issued a statement about the reported prosecutions, saying Egypt's judiciary claims to be independent but is actually "subject to executive influence and corruption."
"The continued assault on American, German and Egyptian civil society is not a 'legitimate judicial process.' It is a politically motivated effort to squash Egypt's growing civil society, orchestrated through the courts, in part by Mubarak-era hold overs," reads the statement.
The State Department has not said that by seeking refuge at the embassy the workers would be immune from arrest but it is an option the U.S. may try to execute if it decides not to cooperate with Egyptian authorities.
The U.S. has aided Egypt with billions in funding over the last 30 years, including $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt for the current fiscal year, which ends on Sept. 30. Congress this year has provided $250 million in economic aid and up to $60 million for an "enterprise fund" for Egypt.
The military aid is conditioned on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton certifying the Egyptian government's move from a military council -- set up after the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak last year -- to a civilian government that respects democratic rights of citizens to participate in elections, speech and assembly.
"We are very clear that there are problems that arise from this situation that can impact all the rest of our relationship with Egypt. We do not want that," Clinton told reporters Saturday after meeting with Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr on the sidelines of the 48th Munich Security Conference in Germany..
"We have worked very hard the last year to put in place financial assistance and other support for the economic and political reforms that are occurring in Egypt and we will have to closely review these matters as it comes time for us to certify whether or not any of these funds from our government can be made available under these circumstances," Clinton said, according to Reuters.
A bipartisan group of 41 lawmakers wrote Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Thursday to warn that unless there is a quick resolution to the raids against the NGOs -- including allowing them to reopen and ending investigations -- Clinton will have a hard time certifying Egypt's actions, forcing Congress to withhold money.
The same group of lawmakers also sent a letter to Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, head of Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, warning that "the absence of a quick and satisfactory resolution to (raids) will make it increasingly difficult for congressional supporters of a strong U.S.-Egypt bilateral relationship to defend current levels of assistance to Egypt -- especially in this climate of budget cuts in Washington."
Beside the 19 Americans, five Serbs, two Germans and three non-Egyptian Arab nationals are reportedly among the 43 to face trial. A date has yet to be set, media reports said, quoting an Egyptian judiciary official.