CAIRO — Egyptian judges said they would resume the trial of a group of Americans and other nongovernmental organization staffers on April 10, over two weeks earlier than previously planned, accelerating a case that nearly ruptured America’s relationship with one of its closest Mideast allies.
Only one American, Robert Becker, an employee of the Washington-based National Democratic Institute, appeared at Thursday’s hearing, which was meant to hear pleas from attorneys and to set a date for the continuation of the trial. Mr. Becker was among 15 accused who stood behind a caged enclosure for defendants, all of whom pleaded not guilty.
The other six American defendants who were residing in Egypt were airlifted out of the country on a U.S. military plane on March 1 after a travel ban against them was lifted.
The U.S. government paid at least $5 million in bail for the 16 accused Americans, most of whom had returned to the U.S. at the time the charges against them were announced, according to lawyers for the accused.
The NGO workers face charges of violating Egypt’s highly restrictive laws on civil society. If convicted, they could face a financial penalty and up to five years in prison.
The judges in the case said the trial would be adjourned in order to give both sides a chance to review evidence, a common convention in Egyptian courts. But they offered no explanation for why the resumption of the trial had been moved up after another set of judges set the date for late April.
The court’s accelerated timeline may be aimed at appeasing public anger over the departure of six of the accused Americans, said lawyers and political analysts.
Leaders in Egypt’s military-appointed government had accused the foreign NGO workers and their Egyptian colleagues of using funding from abroad to stoke protests against Egypt’s interim military leadership.
The prosecution of the workers was touted by the military-appointed government as a muscular defense of Egyptian sovereignty and security. But the mysterious decision to lift the travel ban on the foreigners and their quick departure embarrassed Egyptian politicians and judges.
Egypt’s government appeared to have caved to American pressure after U.S. lawmakers threatened that prosecuting the NGO workers could force Washington to halt the $1.3 billion in military aid the U.S. has given Egypt’s armed forces every year since 1987.
The departure of the American workers appears to have at least temporarily calmed tensions between Washington and Cairo.
“It’s all for domestic consumption,” said Hani Shukrallah, a political analyst, of the decision to accelerate the trial. Mr. Shukrallah is the editor of the English-language website for the government-owned Al Ahram newspaper.
“Everybody is under pressure to seem to do something,” he said.
Members of parliament have called on high-level justices believed to responsible for lifting the travel ban to be sacked and for the current military-appointed cabinet of ministers to be replaced with parliamentary appointees.
One after another, Egyptian cabinet members have deferred responsibility for the decision. At least one high level judge told Egyptian media that the court lifted the travel ban because the evidence in the case didn’t warrant keeping the defendants in the country.
Thursday’s court session was a repeat of the procedural meeting last Sunday, this time with new judges. The original panel of three judges recused themselves shortly before the travel ban on the Americans was lifted last week. The judges offered little explanation for their decision, citing only “embarrassment” over the case.
None of the seven accused Americans who faced a travel ban appeared for the first day of the trial on Feb. 26, including Sam LaHood, the head of the Washington-based International Republican Institute and the son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. Lawyers for the accused said Egyptian prosecutors had failed to serve official notice to any of the foreigners involved in the case.
The American NGO workers pledged to return to Egypt for the resumption of the trial as part of their bail deal. One of the returned Americans said in a telephone interview on Tuesday that they are discussing with their lawyers about whether they should return.
Mr. Becker decided to stay in Egypt because he is confident that he didn’t do anything wrong, and wanted to stand up for himself in trial, according to a person familiar with his thinking. Mr. Becker couldn’t be reached for comment.Top