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Ray LaHood's son sentenced to jail in Egypt in absentia over pro-democracy dispute

Sam Lahood, left, seen as his father Ray is sworn in as Transportation Secretary in January 2009, was sentenced in absentia to five years in prison in Egypt.
Sam Lahood, left, seen as his father Ray is sworn in as Transportation Secretary in January 2009, was sentenced in absentia to five years in prison in Egypt.Transportation Dept. via AP file

CAIRO - The son of U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood was among 16 Americans sentenced to jail in absentia by a court in Egypt Tuesday, part of a diplomatic dispute over the activities and funding of U.S.-backed pro-democracy groups.

Sam LaHood was given a five-year sentence and fined 1,000 Egyptian pounds ($143).

He is among 43 U.S. citizens and foreign nationals to face trial over what Egypt called a crackdown on non-profit organizations working in Cairo without required licenses.

However, opposition groups claim the cases were brought in order to harass activists involved in the country’s 2011 Arab Spring revolt – which led to the removal of former leader Hosni Mubarak – and the subsequent transfer of powers from the military to civilians.

Of the 16 U.S. citizens sentenced on Tuesday, all but one were tried in absentia having left Egypt, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo confirmed.

It was not immediately clear what would happen to the U.S. citizen who remains in Egypt.

Some were given shorter jail sentences than LaHood, but all had to pay the same fine.

The ruling also ordered the permanent closure of the Egypt offices of all non-profit groups involved in the case – including the U.S.-based organizations International Republican Institute, Freedom House, National Democratic Institute for International Affairs and the International Center for Journalists.

Their assets were also ordered to be seized.

LaHood was among a group that was detained at Cairo’s airport in 2012 and prevented from leaving the country – a situation that was eventually resolved following diplomatic pressure from Washington.

In a statement, the IRI refuted Egypt’s claim that the judicial process was legitimate and said the ruling would have a “chilling effect” on Egypt’s transition to democracy.

“This was a politically motivated effort to squash Egypt's growing civil society, orchestrated through the courts, in part by Mubarak-era holdovers,” the statement said, adding that it would “pursue all avenues” to challenge the verdict.

It added: "Today's ruling will have a chilling effect on Egyptian civil society and, taken with other recent developments, raises serious questions about Egypt's commitment to the democratic transition that so many people demanded when they took to the streets in early 2011."

The National Security Council  also called the trial "politically motivated."

"The court's decision undermines the protection of universal human rights and calls into question the Government of Egypt's commitments to support the important role of civil society," spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said in a statement. "We urge the Government of Egypt to protect the ability of these groups to operate freely, including by ensuring that the civil society law under consideration by the Shura Council conforms with international standards, and by working with international and domestic civic organizations to ensure they can support Egypt's transition to democracy."

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American pro-democracy workers face trial in Egypt