CAIRO // A Cairo criminal court yesterday convicted 43 non-profit organisation workers, including 16 Americans, of using foreign funds to foment unrest in Egypt, a verdict that could imperil United States military and economic aid to the country worth US$1.5 billion annually.
All the Americans convicted had already left the country, save for Robert Becker, a former elections trainer who stayed to face the charges along with his Egyptian colleagues. He received a two-year prison sentence.
The verdict also ordered the closure of the non-profit groups involved in the case, which included the US-based International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI), as well as Germany's Konrad Adenauer Foundation.
The case has been a thorn in relations between Egypt, European countries and the US for more than a year. It started with a crackdown on non-profit groups in December 2011, during the 17-month rule of a military council after former president Hosni Mubarak resigned amid a popular uprising on February 11, 2011.
Black-clad police raided the offices of several groups and seized material as part of an investigation originating from complaints made to the public prosecutor.
The non-profit groups were accused of doling out funds to local NGOs without going through Egypt's ministry of international cooperation, which Egyptian law requires to oversee all aid in the country.
Nearly $30m (Dh110m) was disbursed to the Egyptian non-profit groups in the case, according to evidence presented by prosecutors last year.
Fayza Abul Naga, the former minister of planning and international cooperation, told the court last year that "evidence shows the existence of a clear and determined wish to abort any chance for Egypt to rise as a modern and democratic state with a strong economy since that will pose the biggest threat to American and Israeli interests, not only in Egypt, but in the whole region".
At the height of the case, US legislators threatened to cut off aid to Egypt if the military continued with what was characterised as a crackdown on civic society and pro-democracy organisations. The rhetoric cooled after the court allowed the foreign defendants to leave the country.
There was no comment from the Obama administration yesterday, but the convictions are likely to renew discussions of cancelling aid to Egypt.
The IRI criticised the verdict, saying yesterday it "was not a legitimate judicial process, as claimed by Egyptian officials".
The NDI said yesterday it was "shocked and deeply distressed by the unjust conviction" of the 43 nonprofit workers, saying it would have a "chilling effect on the important efforts of civil society in Egypt".
"NDI intends to appeal this decision and hopes that the court's decision will be overturned," it added.
"This was a politically motivated effort to squash Egypt's growing civil society, orchestrated through the courts, in part by Mubarak-era hold overs. IRI will pursue all avenues to challenge today's verdict," it said.
A US congressman from California, Ed Royce, yesterday attacked the verdicts as "another assault on Egyptian civil society".
Though the cases originated before the Egyptian president, Mohammed Morsi, was elected, he, too, has been at odds with nonprofit organisations. He has been criticised for a planned law regulating NGOs that critics say would restrict the funding and operation of independent groups.
Twenty-seven of the defendants were sentenced to five years in prison. Two received two years and 11 got one year. In addition to the Americans, there were eight other foreigners sentenced from Serbia, Jordan, Lebanon and several other countries. The remaining 19 defendants are Egyptian.
With additional reporting from Associated Press