U.S. House panel votes to withhold some Egypt aid

1137.jpgWASHINGTON, June 12 (Reuters) – The U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday advanced legislation aimed at pressuring Egypt to improve its human rights record by withholding some military aid until progress is made.The House Appropriations Committee approved a wide-ranging foreign aid bill for next year that would hold back $200 million in military funds for Egypt until the close U.S. ally takes steps to curb police abuses, reform its judicial system and stop weapons smuggling from Egypt to Gaza. 

The measures, included in a $34.2 billion foreign aid bill for fiscal 2008, which starts on Oct. 1, still must be debated by the full House and the Senate. 

Overall, Egypt would receive $1.3 billion in grants next year, out of $4.5 billion to all countries, to help Cairo buy military hardware and finance military training from the United States. This is in addition to U.S. economic aid. 

“The $200 million cut is substantial,” said Rep. James Moran, a Virginia Democrat on the House panel. “Our ally is not upholding the principles that define us.” 

Rep. Nita Lowey, a New York Democrat who will steer the foreign aid bill through the House, said she hoped Egypt would quickly get the message from Congress and make progress on human rights matters before lawmakers finish work on the legislation later this year. 

Egypt is one of the top recipients of U.S. aid and, under the House proposal, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would have to certify Egypt’s progress on human rights and weapons smuggling before the $200 million would be released. 

Last week, President George W. Bush called on Egypt to release opposition leader Ayman Nour from jail. Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit accused Bush of “unacceptable” meddling in his country’s domestic affairs. 

Before approving the foreign aid bill, the appropriations panel also took a similar step against Indonesia by conditioning $2 million, out of a total of $8 million, in foreign military funds to that country. The Bush administration had sought $15.7 million in military aid for Indonesia. 

The committee said that before the $2 million can be released, Indonesia must prosecute and punish armed forces personnel involved in gross human rights violations. 

For Pakistan, another controversial U.S. aid recipient, $300 million in military grants would be provided next year, the same level as this year and exactly what Bush requested for fiscal 2008. Committee Democrats had been considering cutting the aid by $50 million. 

The foreign aid bill, which would spend $700 million less than Bush requested, faces a possible presidential veto because of language Democrats inserted allowing the U.S. Agency for International Development to send contraceptives to family planning organizations abroad. 

The Bush administration has advocated education programs on abstinence until marriage.

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