Wall Street Journal: Judge Adjourns Trial of Pro-democracy NGOs Until April

Egypt Delays Aid-Worker Trial, as U.S. Steps Up Talks
The Wall Street Journal
By Matt Bradley

CAIRO — An Egyptian judge adjourned a trial of 43 civil-society workers, including at least 16 Americans, who are charged with taking illegal foreign funding, prolonging a legal dispute that is inflaming relations between the U.S. and its crucial Mideast partner.

The decision, which postpones the trial until April 26, is not unusual, as Egyptian trials routinely adjourn after the opening session to allow time for the defense and prosecution to prepare their cases. The trial of President Hosni Mubarak, which ended last week ahead of a final verdict on June 2, was also adjourned at the outset.

None of the foreign defendants, including at least four Americans now sheltered at the U.S. Embassy, appeared at court on Sunday. Judge Mahmoud Mohammed Shukry allowed the 13 Egyptian defendants who attended the chaotic proceedings to leave the court without posting bail.

But with the trial now underway, the delay is unlikely to open new avenues for a diplomatic settlement. Cairo has said repeatedly that the trial is a judicial matter that will brook no outside interference.

The U.S. government is “having intense talks at the highest levels of the Egyptian government” over the accused Americans, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told CNN in the Moroccan capital of Rabat, where she was on an official visit Sunday.

But Sunday’s proceedings underlined how the case against nongovernmental organizations has become central to the interim Egyptian government’s narrative of victimization.

As Sunday’s session unfolded, interim Prime Minister Kamal Al Ganzouri addressed the country’s parliament in a speech that laid much of the blame for the country’s dismal economy on foreign betrayals. Western and Arab states, he said, haven’t delivered on aid pledges made last summer.

Some defendants said the judge’s decision to have them appear behind bars was aimed at humiliating them before an Egyptian public eager to blame foreigners for the unrealized demands of Egypt’s revolution last year.

Prosecuting lawyers delivered extended, florid speeches accusing the defendants of espionage and seeking to undermine the state in the service of foreign-borne conspiracies.

“The amount of media presence that was there shows how much this was for public consumption,” said Nancy Okail, the head of the Cairo office of Freedom House, a Washington-based nongovernmental organization whose employees are implicated in the case.

Ms. Okail, who is Egyptian, said she appeared at court out of principle despite that she has never been served formal notice of the charges against her. The majority of the accused NGO employees—including all of the foreigners—have never received their charges in writing, said Sarwat Abdel Shaheed, a lawyer representing the National Democratic Institute, a Washington-based NGO whose employees were charged in the case.

If the case against the four U.S.-based NGOs, a German NGO and several Egyptian organizations is meant for public consumption, it could cost Cairo dearly. U.S. diplomats have warned the government that proceeding with the trial could jeopardize the $1.3 billion in military aid Washington has given Egypt each year since 1987.

Throughout Sunday’s session, lawyers fought for space with television cameramen and protesters who had managed to infiltrate the lightly guarded court. Hundreds of assembled family members, activists, attorneys and journalists ignored Judge Shukry’s increasingly insistent demands for decorum.

News photographers climbed onto courtroom benches and even hovered precariously on a windowsill to capture images of the caged defendants. Ms. Okail said she had trouble hearing the proceedings.

At one point, the judge bellowed that the next person to interrupt would be thrown in jail.

But defense attorneys said the proceedings were relatively normal by Egyptian standards, despite the predictable pandemonium. The delay will allow defense lawyers to review the 2,500-page dossier of evidence that the court had until now withheld.

The 43 NGO employees are being charged with operating unlicensed civil society organizations and receiving foreign funding without government approval.

Sunday’s proceedings are the culmination of months of escalating investigations against four U.S.-based NGOs that operate in Egypt. In late December, the offices of at least 10 NGOs were raided and sealed. A month later, prosecutors banned at least seven Americans from leaving Egypt.

At least four of the Americans, including Sam LaHood, the head of the IRI’s Cairo office and son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, are now sheltered at the U.S. Embassy as guests of the ambassador.

While the charges are limited to violations of laws governing NGOs, senior Egyptian officials have accused the NGO workers of working for the Central Intelligence Agency and the Israeli government. The organizations, say some Egyptians, are paying protesters to divide Egypt along sectarian lines.

For their part, American and Egyptian NGO workers say the charges amount to little more than scapegoating aimed at blaming foreigners for continuing unrest and economic degradation.

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