New York Times: Egypt’s Politically Driven Conviction of NGO Workers Sends Chilling Message

A Judicial Travesty in Egypt
The New York Times: International
By The Editorial Board
Human rights in Egypt have remained under attack even after the 2011 revolution that ousted President Hosni Mubarak. Still, it was a shock when the Cairo Criminal Court convicted 43 employees of foreign nonprofit groups, including 16 Americans, on criminal charges and gave them prison sentences of one to five years.

The politically driven decision sends a chilling message to Egyptians who want to work for democratic change and to countries like the United States that have committed to being Egypt’s partners in stabilizing the region, reviving the economy and establishing democratic institutions.

The case began when the military-led government that took control after Mr. Mubarak’s fall started a crusade against human rights and civil liberties groups. In December 2011, security forces raided several groups in Cairo, including three American-financed democracy-building organizations — the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute and Freedom House — and carried off files and computers. Forty-three foreign and local activists were questioned in a bogus criminal investigation and briefly barred from leaving Egypt.

On June 4, the court convicted them under a Mubarak-era law of receiving illegal funds from abroad and operating unlicensed organizations. In doing so, the court capitulated to the paranoid argument, made by the generals and later by President Mohamed Morsi’s government, that the groups — which, among other things, train poll workers and work on voter education — were “foreign hands” out to destroy Egypt. Altogether, the groups received far less from foreign sources than the $1.3 billion the army receives annually from the United States. Also, they had been invited by the government to help with the post-Mubarak elections.

It is unlikely that any of the defendants will go to prison; some are out of the country and others have received suspended sentences. Still, the verdict is a travesty, and Mr. Morsi should exercise his presidential power to pardon them. He knows the law under which they were convicted is deeply flawed since he has proposed a substitute. But even his proposal falls short of international human rights standards and should be modified.

Secretary of State John Kerry has condemned the verdict as “incompatible with the transition to democracy,” but a much stronger American response is needed. The verdict might also be cause for Washington to rethink its relationship with Egypt, whose democratic transition is running aground. It is troubling that Mr. Kerry last month approved giving Egypt its annual $1.3 billion in military aid despite its failure to meet Congressionally mandated democracy standards.

Egypt’s stability and its ability to build durable democratic institutions, establish a sound economy, respect the rights and freedoms of its citizens and uphold the peace treaty with Israel are hugely important. The United States needs to find a more effective way of getting that message across.

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