New York Times: Egypt Restarts Trial of Pro-democracy NGOs

American in Egypt Appears in Court
The New York Times
By David D. Kirkpatrick

CAIRO — The last American facing criminal charges here for his work with United States-backed nonprofit groups appeared in court Thursday as the trial reopened, standing in the metal cage where Egyptian criminal courts keep defendants during proceedings.

The American, Robert Becker, chose to stay in Egypt to stand trial even after his federally financed employer, the National Democratic Institute, paid $330,000 in bail to allow him a chance to leave the country. He has not returned an electronic message and could not be reached for comment.

Mr. Becker and six other Americans had been trapped here under a travel ban pending their trial until last week when, under heavy United States pressure, judicial officials withdrew the travel restriction on the condition that the defendants post bail and pledge to appear when the trial reopened.

A State Department airplane flew all but Mr. Becker out of Egypt last week and none returned Thursday for the trial despite their pledges to do so. The judge ordered their arrest as fugitives if they return to Egypt.

Mr. Becker’s lawyer, Tharwat Abdel Shaheed, said in court that his client chose to stay “because he has confidence in the Egyptian judiciary and because he is certain of his innocence.”

The diplomats who worked frantically for weeks to try to arrange the exit deal did so in part to avoid the humiliating and potentially politically explosive image of United States citizens locked in a cage. But Mr. Becker’s last-minute refusal to leave meant that the spectacle unfolded despite their efforts.

The court session lasted only about 20 minutes to consider procedural matters before the judge adjourned the proceedings, ordering the prosecutors to ensure that all the defendants show up at the next hearing on April 10, The Associated Press reported.

Prosecutors handling the case have raised an array of inflammatory allegations that the nonprofit groups were conspiring with Israel and the C.I.A. to manipulate the Egyptian revolution or even break apart the country. But as a matter of law, Mr. Becker and 42 others are accused of accepting unauthorized foreign financing for unlicensed nonprofit groups.

Those facts are not in dispute, but the relevant laws have seldom been enforced. Three of the American groups were also in good enough standing that the military-led government asked them to serve as observers for the parliamentary elections. (Less selective enforcement of the laws would decimate advocacy and rights groups here because almost every independent nonprofit relies on foreign funds.)

Mr. Becker could face six or more years in jail if convicted.

Most of the 42, including 15 Americans, are now outside the country. But about a dozen Egyptian employees of the American-backed groups continue to face trial along with Mr. Becker. Mr. Becker can still leave the country if he chooses.

Beside the National Democratic Institute, the American groups involved include the International Republican Institute and Freedom House. The three groups are chartered to promote democracy abroad.

The lifting of the travel ban has now become a major political issue in Egypt. Many have denounced it as an inappropriate infringement on the independence of the courts and the impartial rule of law, and the appearance of impropriety is compounded by the fact that the lifting of the ban took place under mysterious circumstances after the initial judges recused themselves, complaining of political pressure. Leaders of Parliament have pledged to investigate the matter.

Mayy El Sheikh contributed reporting.

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