By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate subcommittee that oversees foreign aid, said on Tuesday he would not approve sending funds to the Egyptian military, denouncing a "sham trial" in which a court sentenced 683 people to death.
The decision by Leahy, the longest-serving U.S. senator and an influential foreign policy voice, could further complicate the Obama administration's difficult relationship with Egypt, one of Washington's most important strategic allies in the Middle East.
The Pentagon said last week it would deliver 10 Apache attack helicopters and $650 million to Egypt's military, relaxing a suspension of aid imposed after Egypt's military ousted President Mohamed Mursi on July 3 and violently suppressed protesters.
"I'm not prepared to sign off on the delivery of additional aid for the Egyptian military," Leahy said in a speech on the Senate floor, explaining why he would hold up the $650 million. "I'm not prepared to do that until we see convincing evidence the government is committed to the rule of law."
An Egyptian court on Monday sentenced the leader of the Mursi's outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and 682 supporters to death, intensifying a crackdown on the Islamist movement that could trigger protests and political violence ahead of an election next month.
Leahy said he would be watching the situation in Egypt with "growing dismay" even if he were not chairman of the State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee, denouncing "a sham trial lasting barely an hour."
"It's an appalling abuse of the justice system, which is fundamental to any democracy. Nobody, nobody, can justify this. It does not show democracy. It shows a dictatorship run amok. It is a total violation of human rights," the Vermont Democrat said.
The Apaches are not subject to legislative approval, congressional aides said.
THE LEAHY LAW
Washington normally sends $1.5 billion in mostly military aid to Egypt each year, but a U.S. law intended to promote international human rights, written by Leahy, bars funding for governments brought to power via military coup.
The Obama administration wavered for months last year over what to call the July events in Cairo. But it cut aid off in October to demonstrate unhappiness after the ouster of Mursi, who emerged from the Muslim Brotherhood to become Egypt's first democratically elected leader after a popular uprising ended the 30-year rule of Hosni Mubarak in February 2011.
Administration officials did not comment specifically on Leahy's remarks, but said they would discuss the issue with members of Congress.
Secretary of State John Kerry had an hour-long meeting on Tuesday with Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy in Washington and made clear the United States was "deeply disturbed" by recent events in Egypt, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
"These actions represent a setback and make it more challenging to move forward," she said at a briefing. Psaki said the State Department will be briefing members of Congress and hearing their concerns.
(Additional reporting by Missy Ryan, Doina Chiacu and Jeff Mason; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Mohammad Zargham)