Time: Egypt’s Trial of Pro-democracy Workers Opens in Chaos

Disorder in the Court as Egypt’s Trial of NGO Activists Begins
By Abigail Hauslohner

Forty-three NGO workers, including 16 Americans, went on trial in Cairo on Sunday in a case that has sent U.S-Egyptian relations plummeting to their most serious low in decades. For hours, the 13 defendants who attended the session — all Egyptians — sat in the caged docket as a packed room of journalists, lawyers, families and spectators jostled and shouted in a paparazzi-like frenzy.

The civil-society workers, which include both foreign and local employees of prominent Washington-based democracy-promotion groups Freedom House, the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI), as well as the International Center for Journalists and the German Konrad Adenauer Foundation, are charged with operating without a license and receiving and distributing millions of dollars worth of foreign funding to Egyptian political and civil-society groups.

The crackdown, which formally began in December with raids by Egyptian security forces on 17 NGO offices across the country, has sparked outrage in Washington. The U.S. Administration has threatened to slash the annual $1.3 billion aid package that it hands to Egypt’s military, which took over to rule the country last year after a popular uprising ended the 30-year reign of President Hosni Mubarak. U.S. officials and NGO employees say the case, launched by the Minister of International Cooperation and Planning Fayza Aboul Nega, a Mubarak-era stalwart, is politically motivated because the democracy groups have operated in Egypt for years and have applied repeatedly for licenses. Still, a decision by the U.S. Congress late last year to make aid conditional — effectively placing guarantees on the country’s progress toward a democracy — angered the generals and may have provoked a standoff over the NGO issue.

For an hour and a half on Sunday afternoon, chaos reigned in the New Cairo Court on the capital’s northeast outskirts as people jostled for position around the defendants’ docket. “Stand still, ass!” an Egyptian photographer shouted at the caged defendants at one point. None of the foreign defendants appeared in court on Sunday. Only seven of the 16 Americans remain in the country under travel bans. Some of them, including Sam LaHood — Egypt director of IRI and the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood — have taken refuge at the U.S. Embassy. “There won’t be any foreigners here because none of them have been served papers,” Les Campbell, the regional director of NDI, told TIME shortly before the trial. He said that the prosecution had compiled some 2,200 pages of evidence but had not provided any of it to NDI. “We’ve never been given anything in writing. We only hear things in the media.”

If convicted, the defendants could face sentencing of heavy fines and up to five years in prison. In an environment that has grown increasingly hostile to foreigners — and particularly Americans, who are viewed to have backed the Mubarak dictatorship — the Egyptian public has shown little sympathy for the NGO workers, whom they see as further examples of foreign meddling in Egyptian affairs.

While the formal charges don’t yet directly include allegations of espionage, the civil-society workers are charged with preparing “reports of their activities” and delivering those reports to their headquarters abroad. Earlier this month, Egyptian state media declared that the groups had been involved in a plot to undermine the country’s stability. The state press quoted testimony by Nega, in which she alleged that the U.S. government has worked actively through the NGOs to sow unrest. Hers is the longest witness testimony in the prosecution’s files, according to a source close to the case, and a volunteer prosecutor at Sunday’s hearing demanded that espionage charges be formally added to the case. Earlier this month, investigating judges described maps found in NGO offices that they said depicted Egypt divided into four sections — common regional designations on other maps but proof, Egyptian officials have said, of U.S. government plans to divide up Egypt. Speaking in front of Egypt’s newly elected parliament on Sunday as the trial was ongoing, Prime Minister Kamal al-Ganzouri defended the case, saying that Egypt “won’t back down or take a different route because of some aid or other,” according to al-Jazeera.

Inside the packed courtroom, police officers and court officials tried repeatedly to quiet the melee. “Anybody who talks could be put in jail!” a court official shouted at one point as cameramen stood on benches and clung to the windows. Another person banged incessantly on a table, and a woman burst into tears. “It’s been a nightmare,” said Leila Abaza, a close family friend of one of the defendants. “I’ve been working in civil society since 2002, and this has never happened before. We’re disturbed because it’s a message to civil society. It’s a punishment for all of civil society.” Rights groups have warned that the NGO crackdown signifies far more than a possible breakdown in U.S.-Egyptian relations; it could have dire consequences for Egypt’s nascent democracy at a time when the country needs democracy-promotion efforts most. “I can tell you they are very transparent, and the training they were giving is really needed during this period,” said Saeed Ali, whose daughter, an employee of NDI, sat in the defendants’ cage. “It’s ridiculous,” he added. “I think the SCAF [Supreme Council of the Armed Forces] and the government are trying to create a big fuss to cover up other problems.”

The defendants present for the first hearing denied all of the charges against them, and their attorneys presented written requests to the judges for access to witnesses and evidence, as well as monetary compensation for their clients, while prosecutors called for the maximum sentencing. One shouted that the penal code be amended to allow for harsher sentences. The trial was adjourned until April 26th.

It’s unclear whether the American defendants will be compelled to attend the next hearing. Typically when a defendant is absent to make his or her defense in an Egyptian court, the judge often opts for the maximum sentencing. However, a conviction in absentia does not necessarily result in immediate fulfillment of the sentence if the convicted returns to the country. “We’ve been so uninformed about everything since the beginning of the case,” Nancy Okail, the Egypt director of Freedom House, told TIME the day before her trial.

Several high-ranking Cairo judges have told TIME that verdicts in Egypt’s corrupt justice system generally have little to do with criminal guilt and everything to do with politics and connections. And some of the Egyptian defendants’ families and friends were worried on Sunday that their loved ones might be forced to bear the brunt of a case that they say is rooted in international politics. Outside the court, dozens of supporters of the “Blind Sheik” — Omar Abdel Rahman, the convicted mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing — called for his release from a U.S. prison in exchange for the American defendants. At other times, they called for the Americans’ execution. Campbell of NDI said that the U.S. embassy has been working on the case for weeks, but that he had no specific information about their efforts.

Jail time for the Americans would almost certainly push the U.S. Administration to cut off Egypt’s military aid. But analysts say the crisis has already escalated to such an extent — fueled in large part by state media — that Egypt’s rulers would face a public-opinion backlash if they back down now. One face-saving option may involve a guilty verdict with a “suspended” sentence — something that would enable the government to appear strong in its conviction while avoiding a serious diplomatic disaster. At the end of the session, all of the defendants were allowed to go free — for now. “On a legal basis, we have a very strong position — our papers are very clean, very clear,” says Okail. “But we don’t know how far this could go.”

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