(Inserts background on Senate legislation, paragraph 6, and lobbying group, paragraph 11)
By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON, June 24 (Reuters) - Senior U.S. lawmakers said on Tuesday they were rethinking the more than $1 billion in military aid Washington sends to Cairo after Egyptian courts handed out mass death sentences to opposition figures and long prison terms for journalists.
The chairman of the U.S. Senate subcommittee that oversees foreign aid said further funds should be withheld until Egypt’s leaders demonstrate a commitment to human rights, and a senior member of the equivalent House of Representatives panel offered legislation to redistribute some of the U.S. money.
On June 21, an Egyptian court confirmed death sentences against 183 members of the opposition Muslim Brotherhood in a mass trial on charges of violence over an incident in which one policeman was killed.
On Tuesday, Egypt’s newly elected president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, said he would not interfere with judicial verdicts, following an international outcry over lengthy prison sentences given to three al Jazeera journalists this week.
“Withholding military aid to the Egyptian regime has let its leaders know that repressive actions and abuses of human rights and the rule of law are deeply concerning to the American people, and to many in Congress,” Vermont Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, the subcommittee chairman, said in a statement ruing Cairo’s “descent toward despotism.”
A Senate committee last week approved an amendment to an appropriation bill that, if passed by the full Senate and House, would cut aid to Egypt by about a third.
California U.S. Representative Adam Schiff introduced an amendment to an annual appropriations bill on Tuesday that would shrink Egypt’s overall aid package by about 30 percent and redistribute some of the money to support education and democracy.
“As long as we are giving Egyptians a blank check, we can expect our democratic ideals to be given no more than lip service,” Schiff told Reuters in a telephone interview.
The House Appropriations committee voted 35-11 to defeat Schiff’s amendment, but he said he intended to introduce it again as the bill moves through Congress, with more hope of support in the full House and Senate.
Egypt has been the second-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid since its landmark peace treaty with Israel in 1979. But the policy was upended by the political transformations triggered by the 2011 popular uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak.
A source at the influential pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC said it had opposed Schiff’s amendment, as its primary focus on aid to Egypt has always been Cairo’s commitment to the peace treaty with Israel.
Washington provides about $1.3 billion a year in military aid to Egypt, plus another $200 million in economic and democracy-building assistance.
After the army ousted the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Mursi, who was elected after that uprising, Washington froze much of the aid. But the Obama administration relaxed its position in April to release $650 million in military financing as Secretary of State John Kerry certified Cairo was maintaining its peace treaty with Israel. (Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Ken Wills)