USA Today: Activists Say Convictions of Democracy Workers No Different From Police-State Policies Egyptian Revolution Sought to End
Egyptian Court Convicts 16 American Non-profit Workers
CAIRO – Critics railed against the sentencing Tuesday of 43 people, including at least 16 Americans, to up to five years in prison for illegally using foreign funds to foment unrest with regard to their work with non-governmental groups.
Democratic activists say the convictions are no different from the police-state policies that the Egyptian revolution of 2011 sought to end.
All but one of the Americans had already fled the country, including the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
“This is a continuation of the war on civil society in Egypt,” said Tarek Radwan, associate director for research at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center in Washington, D.C. “The legal reasoning behind it is sound but the legal framework itself is not,” Radwan said. “It doesn’t meet international standards of freedom of association. So, this is essentially the bureaucracy just going with the flow and it’s really unfortunate.”
There was no immediate comment from the Obama administration.
The court ordered that the non-profit offices in Egypt where many of the defendants worked be shut down and their assets seized. The organizations ordered shut include Freedom House, the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute. all of which are based in the United States and help establish democratic institutions like newspapers and community organizers. T
he only American defendant still in Egypt is Robert Becker, who was sentenced to two years in prison. Becker had said he refused to leave Egypt with fellow Americans who were in the country at the time of the crackdown to show solidarity with his Egyptian colleagues.
The trial began early last year under Egypt’s military council, which governed the country for months following the ouster of dictator Hosni Mubarak. The case became a heated point of debate in Washington and prompted lawmakers to rethink sending millions of dollars in annual U.S. aid to Egypt.
Of the 43 defendants, some of them Egyptians, 27 received five years in prison, five received two years in prison, and 11 were sentenced to a year. The outcome of Tuesday’s trial indicates that former policies surrounding non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are not going to change under democratically elected President Mohammed Morsi, experts say.
“The big questions right now is: What will Morsi will do?” asks Heba Morayef, Egypt director in the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch.
“Morsi could pardon them if he wants to distance himself from this trial and say, ‘Egypt is changing and turning over a new leaf and will no longer be ruled by the paranoia of the security agency.'”
But, she said, that won’t be the case, particularly in light of a revised, controversial draft law that Morsi presented to Egypt’s interim legislative body last week.
The draft, which addresses independent groups, reflects the state’s paranoia of foreign organizations and foreign funding, which was the driving force behind the NGO trial, Morayef said.
If passed, the government would have room to arbitrarily curb the operation of non-governmental groups and restrict their funding – essentially giving the state and its security apparatus formalized control over NGOs.
“This is an extremely dangerous development with grave ramifications far beyond the realm of NGOs as it paves the way for the establishment of a new and more enshrined police state,” said a statement signed by 40 non-governmental groups that oppose the draft legislation.
Motaz Attalla, right to education officer at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said the proposed law and Tuesday’s verdicts are worrying.
“This trial suggests that there are many ways the government can choose to put pressure on, or even silence or punish, NGO workers if their work is not to the liking of those in power,” Attalla said.