Reuters: Egyptian Democracy Activists See Trial of NGOs as Evidence Government is Trying to Silence Critics

March 8, 2012

Egypt judge delays trial of NGO workers
Reuters

An Egyptian judge said on Thursday he was delaying until April 10 the trial of civil society activists including 16 Americans accused of receiving illegal foreign funds and pursuing their pro-democracy activities without a license.

The case, which targets groups including the U.S.-funded National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute, strained Egypt's U.S. ties and prompted threats from Washington to withdraw $1.3 billion of military aid.

The tension abated last week when Egyptian authorities lifted a travel ban on some of the foreigners targeted in the judicial probe of the non-governmental organizations and most of them left the country.

But the charges against the 43 Egyptian and foreign NGO workers still hold. One of the Americans working for NDI, Robert Becker, stayed in Egypt after the travel ban was lifted and was in court on Thursday before Judge Makram Awad.

Awad demanded that prosecutors bring before the court 15 foreigners who were charged but fled Egypt before the travel ban was imposed, some of them U.S. nationals.

Seven U.S. citizens, including the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, were in Egypt when the ban came into force and sought refuge at the American embassy in Cairo while officials scrambled to defuse the crisis.

Washington paid bail of about $330,000 for each of those U.S. citizens as part of the deal allowing them to leave.

"Those who ... saw their travel ban lifted and left the country last week will be informed of the trial date," said an assistant to the court who asked not to be named.

One lawyer said the case was likely to continue with the missing defendants being tried in absentia.

"This is a serious case that harms Egypt national security interests. We will seek the toughest punishment for the accused," a second lawyer, Magdy Ahmed Refa'i, said.

Egyptian democracy campaigners see the case as evidence that the country's ruling generals are trying to silence their most vocal critics.

Many ordinary Egyptians are angry that the foreigners were allowed to leave before the trial ended, seeing it as a humiliating capitulation to a foreign power.

Some who attended the trial to support Becker, the only American defendant still in Egypt, voiced admiration for his decision to stay behind when he had the chance to leave.

"Mr. Becker is a man we all respect," said one of his supporters who asked not to be named. "I was one of the party members he trained. He taught us how to campaign during elections and what democratic governance means. He is a good man and respects Egyptians."

Reporting by Marwa Awad; Writing by Tom Pfeiffer; Editing by Louise Ireland