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US Deeply Troubled by Egypt's Handling of Nour Case

The United States Thursday expressed deep concern about the Egyptian government's treatment of opposition politician Ayman Nour and police violence against demonstrators. But the State Department said the Bush administration is not considering a cut in the U.S. aid program for Egypt.

The State Department used some of its strongest language to date in criticizing the treatment of jailed former presidential candidate Ayman Nour and renewed police violence in Cairo against demonstrators for an independent court system.

Nour was turned down Thursday in an appeal of the five-year prison term he received in December for forgery, while Egyptian security agents attacked judicial reform protesters in Cairo in the second incident of its kind in a week.

At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said the case of Mr. Nour, President Hosni Mubarak's challenger in last September's election, is both a miscarriage of justice and a setback for the democratic aspirations of the Egyptian people.

He also said U.S. officials are deeply troubled by the repeated instances of police violence against those demonstrating on behalf of pro-reform Egyptian judges:

"Both Mr. Nour's ongoing detention and the Egyptian government's handling of dissent raise serious concerns about the path of political reform and democracy in Egypt and are incongruous with the Egyptian government's professed commitment to increase political openness and dialogue within Egyptian society," McCormack said. "We urge the Egyptian government to respect the rights of citizens to express their views peacefully."

Spokesman McCormack cited reports that Nour's health is deteriorating, and urged Cairo authorities to consider his humanitarian release, and the release of protesters jailed in recent weeks.

McCormack said the United States questions the basis of the charges originally brought against Nour, who was accused of forging documents his party submitted to register for last year's elections.

Under questioning, McCormack said the Bush administration still believes Egypt has embarked on a path to greater political openness, albeit a bumpy one.

He also said administration officials continue to support the nearly $2 billion annual U.S. aid program for Egypt at current levels and believe it is mutually beneficial.

In a congressional hearing Wednesday, House members of both parties urged a re-evaluation of the program because of the slow pace of political reform in Egypt and repression of dissent.

But Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch said Egypt's role in combating terrorism and supporting peace efforts in the Middle East and Sudan is critical and irreplaceable, and said aid cuts would be damaging to U.S. interests.