Egypt lifts travel ban on US activists on trial in NGO case
CAIRO // Egypt has decided to lift a travel ban preventing American pro-democracy activists on trial for allegedly receiving illicit foreign funding from leaving the country.
A lawyer for some of the defendants told Agence France-Presse he had been informed that the ban had been lifted but that the defendants would have to post bail of two million Egyptian pounds (Dh1.2m). None of the defendants have been arrested.
The move came after the three judges overseeing the case against operating resigned, increasing the likelihood of a diplomatic solution to a dispute that has threatened more than $1.5 billion (Dh5.5bn) of US aid to Egypt.
The judges resigned “for reasons of discomfort” according to the state-run newspaper Al Ahram, which cited the head of the People’s Assembly Legislative Committee, Mahmoud El Khodairy.
The trial of 43 NGO workers - including 16 Americans - opened on Sunday, but was adjourned until April 26 to give both sides more time to prepare their arguments.
The judges gave no detail on the reasons for their “discomfort”, but there was little doubt during the first hearing on Sunday that the case was politically charged.
Protesters interrupted proceedings several times, leading the judges to call an early break time and threaten those in court with arrest if they continued to be disruptive. After the adjournment, protesters chanted “down with the military regime”.
The resignations announcement came hours after Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, said on Tuesday that Egypt and the US were working toward a resolution after “a lot of very tough conversations”.
US politicians have threatened to cut off aid to Egypt, $1.3bn of military assistance and $225 million of economic aid, if the military continued with what has been called a “crackdown” on civic society and pro-democracy organisations.
Escalating the diplomatic nature of the situation is the fact that one of the defendants is Sam LaHood, the son of the US transport secretary and head of the Egypt office of the International Republican Institute (IRI), observers said.
Egyptian officials have long expressed reservations about US NGOs working in Egypt without a proper licence and being overseen by its ministries, but the issue came to the forefront in the months after a popular uprising toppled the presidency of Hosni Mubarak last year.
Over the summer, the US indicated it would shift new resources to NGOs to support democracy building and election monitoring. This incensed officials, who saw the new funding as purposely circumventing its supervision of NGOs.
Nearly $30m was disbursed to the groups in the case, but this also includes funds given by other countries to the NGOs, according to evidence presented by prosecutors.
Fayza Abul Naga, the minister of planning and international cooperation, and a holdover from Mr Mubarak’s cabinet, has accused the NGOs of interfering with Egypt’s transition to a new democratic government for the interests of other powers.
“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,” she said.
The investigation gathered steam in December, when security forces raided the offices of the NGOs to gather evidence for the case.
Travel bans were issued for several of the foreign defendants, which led at least four Americans to seek refuge inside the US Embassy.
After a period of sharply worded rhetoric from US and Egyptian officials in January, both sides appeared to be taking a more conciliatory approach to the issue.
The US senator, John McCain, a Republican of Arizona, said last week that the case was a result of an outdated and repressive law from Mubarak’s regime.
The IRI and National Democratic Institute (NDI), the most prominent groups targeted in the case, have maintained they were legally operating because they had applied for a licence and were in continuous contact with the government concerning their activities in Egypt.
Lorne Craner, the president of IRI, told the US Congress on February 16 that the NGO case was “just one symptom of increasingly troublesome developments in Egypt. Revolutions are indeed messy, but in no country in the region, and few elsewhere, has the postrevolutionary situation been as repressive as in Egypt,” he said.
“Taken in total, the events we are seeing reflect not only an attack on American democracy implementers like IRI, but more importantly, are the tip of the iceberg in an continuing effort to silence independent Egyptian civil society voices that have been under increasing assault since last fall.
“The rhetoric employed by Egyptian authorities in doing so is increasingly reminiscent of Mubarak-era propaganda.”
* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press
Updated: March 1, 2012 04:00 AM