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Washington Post: Egypt’s Conviction of NGO Workers Alarms Pro-Democracy Advocates

June 5, 2014

NGO Workers Convicted in Egypt
The Washington Post
By Griff Witte

CAIRO — An Egyptian court on Tuesday convicted and sentenced to jail 43 nonprofit workers, including 16 Americans, in a case that has alarmed pro-democracy advocates who fear a shrinking space for civil society more than two years after the country’s revolution.

The convictions threaten to further strain ties between Egypt’s fledgling government and Washington, which has criticized the crackdown on rights workers. The majority of those convicted Tuesday were given five-year prison terms, but they were tried in absentia, having already left Egypt. They are unlikely to return. Eleven others received a suspended sentence of one year. But a handful face the prospect of jail, among them American Robert Becker.

The former National Democratic Institute (NDI) employee, who stayed in Egypt even after his American co-defendants fled, was given a two-year sentence. Becker has said he remained out of a sense of solidarity with the Egyptians who were charged. Becker’s whereabouts Tuesday were not known, but he had written on his blog Monday that he would stay in Egypt for the verdict, which he said ran contrary to his lawyer’s advice.

“I was told it would be best for me to go home, so that is exactly where I will be . . . home, in Cairo,” he wrote.

After the verdict, Becker took to Twitter: “Maintaining my innocence on charges of starting NGO six years before I actually arrived in Egypt & waiting for appeal strategy.”

Becker, who has said he was fired by the NDI for his decision to remain in Egypt, had been free to leave the country in the months leading up to the verdict.

Nancy Okail, who directed operations in Egypt for Freedom House and was convicted in absentia Tuesday, called the verdict “the worst that could have happened. The crime that we committed was to work on human rights and democracy.”

The case against the 43 workers has its roots in a December 2011 raid on the Cairo offices of multiple nonprofit organizations, including several prominent U.S.-based groups: the NDI, the International Republican Institute (IRI), the International Center for Journalists and Freedom House. Those arrested were accused of illegally using foreign funds to foment unrest — a dubious charge given that the groups were operating openly and in cooperation with the government.

At the time, Egypt was being run by the military council that filled the void after President Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign in February 2011. But the prosecutions have persisted under elected President Mohamed Morsi, who has come under increasing fire for what critics claim are authoritarian tendencies. Last week, Morsi submitted a bill to the country’s legislature that rights groups claim would significantly curtail their ability to operate in Egypt.

Although Egypt’s judiciary is constitutionally separate from the Morsi-run executive branch, human rights advocates say Tuesday’s verdict, coupled with the proposed law, will have a chilling effect on their operations.

“This is a message meant to intimidate the NGOs,” said Mamdouh Nakhla, chairman of al-Kalema Center for Human Rights, a small advocacy organization. “Morsi doesn’t want scrutiny of his actions. He doesn’t want pressure from all these groups.” In particular, Nakhla said he is concerned by a provision of the proposed new law that would allow a committee to vet a nonprofit’s funding sources.

With Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood backers and other Islamists firmly in control of the government, Nakhla said he fears secular groups will be targeted. Kamal Nour El Din, a member of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party who chairs the parliamentary committee responsible for the new legislation, said critics have misinterpreted the proposed law. The goal, he said, is simply to streamline a process that had long been considered mystifyingly bureaucratic.

It is unclear when, or even whether, the legislation will be taken up for a vote. Egypt’s lower house of parliament has been disbanded, and the law governing the remaining upper house was ruled invalid on Sunday by the nation’s supreme court. The court said the upper house, known as the Shura Council, can continue to operate pending new elections, a date for which has not been set.

None of the 43 defendants appeared to be in the Cairo courtroom Tuesday, where a three-judge panel issued its ruling. In addition to announcing the convictions, the judges ordered the shuttering of the local branches of the workers’ employers: the IRI, the NDI, Freedom House and Germany’s Konrad-Adenauer Foundation.

In a statement, the IRI called the case “politically motivated.”

“Today’s ruling will have a chilling effect on Egyptian civil society and, taken with other recent developments, raises serious questions about Egypt’s commitment to the democratic transition that so many people demanded when they took to the streets in early 2011,” the statement said.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry said in a statement that the United States was “deeply concerned” by the verdicts and sentences and also described the trial as politically motivated.

“This decision runs contrary to the universal principle of freedom of association and is incompatible with the transition to democracy,” he said.

Among those sentenced in absentia was Sam LaHood, son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. The younger LaHood had led the IRI’s operations in Egypt but was forced, along with others, to hide in the U.S. Embassy for a month in early 2012 until he was permitted to leave the country.

Lara El Gibaly contributed to this report.