Wall Street Journal: Judges Recuse Themselves in Egypt’s Highly Politicized Trail of Pro-democracy NGO Workers

Egyptian Judges Step Aside in Trial of Foreign Workers
The Wall Street Journal
By Matt Bradley

CAIRO — The three judges assigned to a case against dozens of foreign and Egyptian civil-society workers recused themselves on Tuesday, raising hopes that diplomacy may resolve a highly politicized trial that has threatened the U.S.’s security relationship with Egypt.
In late January, Egyptian prosecutors charged 43 civil-society workers, including at least 16 U.S. citizens, with operating unregistered organizations and distributing foreign funds without permission. If convicted, they could face a financial penalty and up to five years in prison.
The judges cited “embarrassment” over the trial, the Egyptian state news agency reported, but offered few other clues as to why they stepped aside. The announcement came just two days into the trial, amid a flurry of American diplomatic efforts to arrange a neat exit from a growing diplomatic row.
Sarwat Abdel Shahid, who represents the National Democratic Institute, a U.S.-based NGO that is largely funded by Congress, and a U.S.-based organization devoted to journalism training, said the judges likely feared being used by Egypt’s interim military-led government to play to anti-American public sentiment.
“I think the judges felt that…who is controlling the country now wanted to use them to put influence on the United States,” he said.
The Ministry of Judiciary didn’t respond to a request to comment Tuesday.
The court of appeals will assign new judges to the case, but the pause could add a few weeks to the trial, offering Egyptian government agencies a chance to formally recognize the NGOs and avoid penalties for their foreign and Egyptian employees.
The judges’ recusal came hours after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a Senate foreign-affairs subcommittee that U.S. diplomats were “moving toward a resolution” on the case, the Associated Press reported.

Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman met with Egypt’s ambassador to the U.S. on Monday as part of the State Department’s “ongoing engagement” with the Egyptian government to resolve the dispute.

Mrs. Clinton has appealed to Egypt’s minister of foreign affairs several times over the past week to resolve the matter.
Mrs. Clinton and American lawmakers have warned the Egyptian government over the past several months that prosecution of employees for U.S.-based NGOs could jeopardize the $1.3 billion in military aid Washington has given Egypt’s military each year since 1987.
But Egypt’s interim government has consistently maintained that the case lies beyond diplomatic interference in the hands of the country’s independent judiciary.
On Sunday, the three judges decided to adjourn proceedings until April 26 to allow attorneys to review court documents.

But Mr. Abdel Shahid said the trial’s chaotic atmosphere may have done more than U.S. diplomatic pressure to persuade the judges to step away.

Prosecutors on Sunday submitted requests to call a staunchly anti-American independent member of Parliament and newspaper owner, as well as the host of a popular nationalist talk show, as witnesses.

Protesters interrupted the proceedings to shout insults at the accused while cameramen climbed over benches to snap photos.
“I think the politics behind the case made the judges decide not to continue,” said Mr. Abdel Shahid.
At least seven of the charged at least 16 Americans still live in Egypt, where they are forbidden by law from leaving the country. At least three of the Americans have taken refuge at the U.S. Embassy.

None of the foreign defendants showed up for Sunday’s hearing.

While the defendants are only charged with violating Egypt’s restrictive NGO law, government officials have publicly accused the American organizations of paying protesters to incite unrest in the country in a bid to destabilize Egypt. The defendants and members of Egypt’s civil-society community say the charges are a calculated bid by the government to blame protests, labor strikes and violence on a foreign conspiracy.

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