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US senator pleads not guilty on bribery charges

A protester outside a New York court calls on US Senator Bob Menendez to resign over corruption charges September 27, 2023
— New York (AFP)

US Senator Bob Menendez pleaded not guilty Wednesday to corruption charges in a New York federal court, where he and his wife appeared on bribery and extortion allegations involving the Egyptian government.

Menendez and his wife Nadine Arslanian were greeted outside the Manhattan courthouse by at least one protester holding up a sign demanding in block letters that the 69-year-old from New Jersey "RESIGN."

So far, Menendez has defied calls from his own Democratic Party colleagues to leave office, though he "temporarily" stepped down as head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee after the charges were unsealed Friday.

Prosecutors say the senator provided sensitive information to the Egyptian government in order to help an Egyptian-American businessman protect his monopoly.

According to US attorney for the Southern District of New York Damian Williams, Menendez accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars between 2018 and 2022 from three New Jersey residents in exchange for using "his power and influence to protect and enrich those businessmen and to benefit the Government of Egypt."

The indictment alleges the bribes came via cash, gold bars and even a Mercedes Benz convertible, all of which were found during a search of the senator's home.

Menendez, who has been a Democratic congressional stalwart for three decades, rebutted the claims at a press conference Monday.

"I firmly believe that when all the facts are presented, not only will I be exonerated, but I still will be New Jersey's senior senator," he said.

"I have withdrawn thousands of dollars in cash from my personal savings account, which I have kept for emergencies, and because of the history of my family facing confiscation in Cuba," said Menendez, whose parents were immigrants.

He also pointed to his record regarding US relations with Egypt, saying he had "challenged President (Abdel Fattah) al-Sisi directly on human rights abuses, arbitrary detention (and) freedoms."

Menendez, who is up for re-election in 2024, was already the subject of a 2015 corruption case, which ended in a mistrial.