Egyptian court closes NGOs, convicts 43 staffers, including US citizens



Khaled Desouki

An Egyptian court on Tuesday convicted and sentenced 43 nongovernmental organization (NGO) staffers – 27 of them in absentia – from one to five years in prison for allegedly working with unlicensed pro-democracy organizations and illegally obtaining foreign money.

The court tried at least 15 US citizens in absentia — all of whom received five-year prison terms — and one American, Robert Becker, who chose to stand trial, received two years in prison.

Becker explained his decision to the Christian Science Monitor in January.

"How dare we preach human rights and democracy and run at the first time we're facing paper felonies," he said. "To me [my Egyptian colleagues] are the future of this country and they're worth fighting for. They had nowhere to run. There was no way I could morally justify hopping on a plane."

In addition, Judge Makram Awad ordered the closure of at least five foreign NGOs linked to the defendants, including the US-based Freedom House, the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ), and Germany's Konrad Adenauer Foundation (KAS).

Yehia Ghanem, a consultant for ICFJ and CEO of Dar Al-Hilal publishing, was sentenced to two years in prison, and a German national with KAS also received a two-year sentence.

Other defendants tried in absentia included citizens of Norway, Serbia, Germany and Arab states, with 11 Egyptians receiving one-year suspended sentences.

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Defense lawyer Dr. Rafat Osman told the Guardian the case had not followed due process.

"They didn't follow the correct procedures or considerations under Egyptian law," he said, adding that he would appeal the verdict.

The trial severely damaged relations between Cairo and Washington, threatening the $1.3 billion annual aid package the United States sends Egypt. US citizens sheltered in their embassy until a travel ban was lifted. They were finally able to leave Egypt after $330,000 bail per person was paid by the US government to Egypt's military council, which was ruling Egypt at the time.

The case follows a highly controversial draft law that Freedom House, along with dozens of human rights groups, says could cripple NGO operations in Egypt.  

"The approval of this law by the presidency would stifle Egyptian civil society organizations, which are already operating in a repressive environment, and prevent them from performing their much-needed role in Egypt’s transition to democracy. Cooperation with international partners, who would likely be effectively prohibited from working in Egypt, would be difficult if not impossible," the group said

In short, the state could control a NGO's activities and restrict domestic and international funding. 

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