While he says it is "patently false" for anyone to say that the International Republican Institute offices he directs are in any way behind the anti-government protests in Egypt, American Sam LaHood told All Things Considered host Melissa Block this afternoon that he's been warned by the organization's attorney that he and others may soon be charged and brought to trial by authorities there.
The lawyer's analogy, LaHood said, is that "we are being held hostage and there's a negoitation going on in his opinion between our governments ... and nobody wants the hostage to die, but sometimes mistakes are made."
(The lawyer, LaHood added, was being funny — not implying that the death penalty would be imposed.)
"If we are referred to trial," LaHood continued. "The trial could last up to a year ... and the potential penalty is six months to five years in jail."
As we reported Thursday, LaHood was one of several Americans prevented from leaving Egypt last weekend. All of them work for the IRI, a U.S.-government sponsored organization that observes elections, educates voters and provides "technical assistance," LaHood said, to political parties. The IRI and more than dozen other foreign organizations were raided by authorities in late December. His group still can't return to its offices and its computers, files and money have not been returned, LaHood says.
The State Department has protested both the raid of the organizations and the move to prevent LaHood and others from leaving Egypt. LaHood was trying to take a personal trip to Dubai when he was stopped at the Cairo airport.
LaHood, 36, is the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. Much more from his conversation with Melissa is due on today's broadcast of All Things Considered. Later, we'll add the as-aired conversation to the top of this post.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Here's a stark sign of just how tense relations are between the U.S. and Egypt right now: Egypt has barred at least six American pro-democracy workers from leaving the country. Among them is Sam LaHood. He's the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. Sam LaHood is director of the Egypt program of the International Republican Institute or IRI. That's a pro-democracy group that's funded by the U.S. government. And we reached him today in Cairo.
He explained what happened to him. Last Saturday, he went to the airport for a trip to Dubai. He was pulled out of the line by Egyptian authorities, and his passport was taken.
SAM LAHOOD: And I waited for about an hour before somebody from immigration came out and told me that I was being prevented from leaving Egypt. A guy showed up about 40 minutes later and had my passport and walked me out of the airport and kind of left me at the curb there.
BLOCK: So it was clear you're on a travel ban list of some sort.
LAHOOD: Well, I assume there was a problem. On Sunday, my attorney went and spoke with the judge who's doing the investigation into a bunch of NGOs here, and he confirmed that he had issued a travel ban on several IRI employees. And it was only on Tuesday that we actually got the list of who that is.
BLOCK: Let's talk a bit about what led up to this. There's been an investigation into nongovernmental organizations, including your own, and then, raids in late December on offices, including those of the IRI, of your group. What happened?
LAHOOD: In the summer, there was some press reports that the Cabinet was involved in some sort of fact-finding investigation into foreign funding in Egypt. And we thought it was a lot of propaganda and a lot of bluster.
And then, in December, they started calling in people from different NGOs and called in some employees from my organization, from the International Republican Institute. And then we were surprised on December 29th when the police raided our office and basically took all of our computers, took a lot of our files, took the money we had in our office and closed our office in Cairo.
BLOCK: Those computers and the money and the files that you're talking about, have you gotten those back?
LAHOOD: No. I mean, it was four weeks ago and we haven't had anything returned. And our office in Cairo is still sealed and we are not allowed to go back in there.
BLOCK: When Egypt talks about foreign hands being behind the anti-government protests there, is there any legitimacy to that claim? Does your group fund or support Egyptian groups, human rights groups, pro-democracy groups, things like that?
LAHOOD: We're basically involved in three main activities here. We do a lot of technical assistance to political parties. We do a lot of technical assistance in voter education with civil society groups here. And then we're involved in election observation. But we do not give any money to any political parties. We don't give any money to candidates or any money to any groups here in Egypt. And so, that allegation, which has just been kind of lobbed around, is patently false in our case.
BLOCK: It's pretty stunning, Mr. LaHood, when you think that the day before you were kept from getting on that plane in Cairo, President Obama had spoken with Egypt's military leader and he reportedly was telling him exactly this, that American military aid is conditional on steps toward democracy. This sounds like a pretty serious provocation and escalation on Egypt's part.
LAHOOD: You know what, I mean, that's a little bit above my pay grade. But, you know - and there's a lot of speculation as to what's going on here. But it's difficult for me to inject logic into this situation here. I mean, it doesn't make a lot of sense to me and to a lot of other people.
BLOCK: What do you figure happens now, Mr. LaHood? Are you effectively being held hostage there in Egypt? You're free, but you're not free to go.
LAHOOD: That's the analogy. Our attorney is actually - we are being held hostage. The legal implications of what we're facing are very serious. If we are referred to trial, the potential penalty I face and the other foreigners face is six months to five years in jail.
BLOCK: Mr. LaHood, what do you think this all says about where Egypt is right now on the path toward democracy and a civil society that you've been working toward?
LAHOOD: From our experience, from IRI's standpoint, change is a long process. And there's bumps in the road and it doesn't come easy and, you know, I think there was a lot of hope and optimism after the revolution that took place a year ago. But the reality is change takes time and the changes that are underway in Egypt - it's a long-term endeavor. This sort of thing takes time.
BLOCK: Well, Sam LaHood, thanks for talking with us today.
LAHOOD: Thank you, Melissa.
BLOCK: Sam LaHood directs the Egypt program of the International Republican Institute. He's one of a number of pro-democracy workers who have been barred from leaving Egypt.
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.