CNN: Egypt to Try Pro-Democracy NGOs
Cairo — The trial of 43 people in Egypt accused in a case involving foreign funding will take place in a criminal court February 26, the spokesman for the general prosecutor’s office said.
Americans are among other Westerners and Egyptians who work for civil society groups who face prosecution on charges of illegal foreign funding as part of an ongoing crackdown on nongovernmental organizations.
Among the Americans is Sam LaHood, the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, according to the State Department. Egypt put the number of Americans at 19.
The employees of the American and European NGOs have been charged with operating in Egypt without licenses. An investigation by authorities revealed that the organizations received millions of pounds from abroad under the names of NGO employees and not through their official bank accounts.
Ashraf El-Ashmawi and Sameh Abu Zeid, the two judges handling the cases, said the charges could lead to five-year prison sentences.
“These organizations conducted unlicensed and illegal activities without the knowledge of the Egyptian government,” said El-Ashmawi. “Documents confiscated during the raids on the NGOs offices confirm illegal foreign funding.”
Documents also showed that foreign workers employed by the NGOs deliberately had tourist — not work — visas, and did not pay taxes.
Khalid Abu Bakr, a civil rights lawyer in Cairo, said the 43 suspects would have to be present in court, inside the iron cage that holds defendants in Egyptian criminal trials. Authorities said a travel ban has been imposed on the suspects.
“Suspects will not be detained but those who do not attend will be issued an arrest warrant,” Abu Bakr told CNN.
He added that the defense lawyers would request a postponement in the hearing “until the witnesses give their testimonies and more details are presented.”
The court did allow the American counsel from the embassy to attend the trial.
Egyptian officials have blamed continuing unrest in their country on foreign interference they attribute, in part, to the organizations.
In December, authorities carried out 17 raids on the offices of 10 organizations, including the U.S.-based Freedom House, National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute.
Adel Saeed, a spokesman with the general prosecutor’s office, said the raids were part of an investigation into allegations that the groups had received illegal foreign financing and were operating without a proper license.
The U.S. State Department said Tuesday it had received a 24-page document from Egyptian authorities that lays out the charges against the staff of U.S. and international democracy-building groups.
Briefing reporters Friday, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that its legal team had held a number of meetings since then.
“We continue to work very hard on these issues. So we need to let that work go forward and hope we can solve this in earliest days,” she said.
Nuland had said Tuesday that no speedy resolution of the case was expected.
“We are continuing to work as hard as we can with the Egyptian government to work our way through this, and we continue to insist that our people have done nothing wrong and that they ought to be allowed to come home,” she said then.
Seven Americans, including LaHood, who is the director of Egypt operations for the International Republican Institute, have been ordered not to leave the country.
A “handful” of American employees of the organizations have taken refuge in the U.S. Embassy, Nuland said.
Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, who serves as IRI board chairman, is expected to visit Egypt soon.
McCain said that while he will address the situation of the detained Americans, he will not attempt to negotiate their release.
“That is the job of the administration, but we will have conversations with military leaders and others who I have known for many, many years on a personal basis,” he said Tuesday on Capitol Hill.