CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt's justice minister said on Tuesday that he sent back a letter from the U.S. ambassador that asked for an end to a travel ban on Americans being investigated for alleged illegal funding of pro-democracy groups.
Washington said several U.S. citizens working for civil society groups were banned from leaving Egypt and took refuge at its embassy in Cairo after the non-governmental organizations were raided by the military-led Egyptian authorities.
The case highlights strains between Washington and its long-standing Arab ally since the overthrow last year of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in a popular uprising.
Justice Minister Adel Abdelhamid Abdallah said the request from Ambassador Anne Patterson was sent to his home and he returned it to the U.S. embassy because it should have been sent to the investigating judges in the case.
"In it were the names of the people banned from travel and it was asking for a cancellation of this decision to be considered, as their constitutional right," he said.
"I spoke to the embassy and I returned this letter and told them that this letter should be sent to the investigating judges and not to the minister of justice," he said.
Abdallah said only those concerned by the travel ban or their representatives were entitled to send such a letter.
Parliament speaker Mohamed Saad al-Katatni, a leading figure in Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood which now dominates the assembly's lower house, said Patterson's request was "interference by the American embassy that we do not accept."
The U.S. embassy in Cairo had no comment.
In a weekend call to the head of Egypt's ruling military council, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta urged the Egyptians to lift the travel ban and expressed concern over restrictions placed on NGOs.
Egypt's government says the number of NGOs violating the law on funding political activities had grown since the uprising against Mubarak.
Groups including the U.S.-funded National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute (IRI) were raided in late December by judicial police, who took documents and equipment before sealing their offices shut.
Civil society groups said the military council had ordered the raids to defame and stigmatize activists, rights groups and others who were at the forefront of the anti-Mubarak revolt and are now demanding the army hand power immediately to civilians.
Among those prevented from leaving Egypt was the IRI's Egypt country director Sam LaHood, who is the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
(Reporting by Ahmed Tolba and Tom Perry; Writing by Edmund Blair and Tom Pfeiffer; Editing by Mark Heinrich)