Bloomberg News: Egypt Convicts Pro-Democracy Workers in Case that has Strained U.S.-Egypt Relations

Egypt Court Sentences Egyptian, Foreign Democracy Workers
Bloomberg News
By Mariam Fam and Salma El Wardany

An Egyptian court handed down prison sentences ranging from one to five years in the case of 43 Egyptian and foreign pro-democracy workers, including Americans, that has strained Cairo’s ties with Washington.

Sam LaHood, the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, was sentenced in absentia to five years in prison.

The court also ordered the closure of the branches of the groups involved in the case including the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute.

Some of the verdicts were issued in absentia. Most of the Americans in the case have left the country.

“The case has a political dimension,” Negad El Borai, a defense lawyer representing some of the defendants said by phone before the verdicts. “These people have paid the price for the tensions between the military council” and the U.S., he said referring to the interim military rulers at the helm when the issue started.

The council took over after the ouster of Hosni Mubarak until Mohamed Mursi became president.

Critics have questioned the legal action, saying it’s part of an attempt by Egyptian officials to muzzle freedom and cripple civil society, as well as to shift attention from domestic problems.

Egyptian officials have said the issue is legal, not political. The trial of the workers opened last year on accusations relating to operating without licenses and receiving funds from abroad.

Brutal Verdict
Tharwat Abdel-Shahid lawyer for the NDI and the Intentional Centre for Journalists, one of the NGOs involved in the trial, said defendants will appeal.

“The verdict is so brutal especially for those who insisted to attend the court secessions and provided all the evidence that proves they’re innocent” he said in a phone interview today.

Robert Becker, an American who was sentenced to two years, wrote on his Twitter account today that he was reviewing legal and appeals options with his lawyers.

“We, as NGO workers were dragged into a larger battle between two governments,” Hafsa Halawa, one of the defendants, said in response to e-mailed questions yesterday. “Ultimately this trial is not about us or the American administration, despite the media play out, it is more about attacking the long-embedded conspiracy fueled by Mubarak that foreign activities in this country are there to harm the prosperity and national security of Egypt.”

Politically Motivated
“The United States is deeply concerned by the guilty verdicts and sentences” that were handed down “in what was a politically motivated trial,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said today in a statement. “This decision runs contrary to the universal principle of freedom of association and is incompatible with the transition to democracy.”

In a statement, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said his country was “outraged” by what he called a harsh ruling against employees of the German-based Konrad Adenauer Foundation and the order to close its Egypt office.

Germany also summoned Egypt’s senior diplomat from the Egyptian Embassy in Berlin to protest.

The trial “was a politically motivated effort to squash Egypt’s growing civil society, orchestrated through the courts, in part by Mubarak-era hold overs,” according to an e-mailed statement from the International Republican Institute.

Yasser el-Shimy, Egypt analyst with the International Crisis Group, said by phone after the verdict that while he expected “verbal condemnations from Washington,” he doesn’t see the convictions “as an issue that can break the U.S.- Egyptian ties in any significant way” given they “are built on strategic interests.”

The verdict came after Mursi sent to the upper house of parliament, which holds temporary legislative powers, a draft law on non-governmental organizations that the presidency said reflected its full support for civil society.

The bill, however, was criticized by rights groups, with Amnesty International calling it a “death blow” to civil society.

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