Egypt sets trial date for democracy advocates

More than 40 NGO workers, including 19 Americans, summoned to court on February 26 in case that threatens Egypt-US ties.

Egypt sets trial date for NGO workers
Fayza Aboul Naga, whose ministry oversees foreign funding for NGOs, has played a lead role in the investigation [EPA]

Egypt will go ahead with a trial for 43 democracy advocates, including Americans who have been banned from leaving the country, escalating a standoff with the United States that has endangered billions of dollars in annual aid and a decades-long relationship. 

The state-run MENA news agency reported on Saturday that judges will summon the accused to court on February 26.

The 43 suspects include 19 Americans, of which at least six are actually in Egypt. Some of the Americans, including the son of a cabinet official in President Barack Obama’s administration, have moved to the US embassy for protection.

Other suspects include 16 Egyptians as well as Serbs, Lebanese, Germans, a Norwegian, a Jordanian and a Palestinian.

The defendants have been swept up in a nearly year-old investigation into the foreign funding of non-governmental organisations instigated at the request of a minister who dates to the regime of ousted President Hosni Mubarak.

They are charged with “establishing unlicensed chapters of international organisations and accepting foreign funding to finance these groups in a manner that breached the Egyptian state’s sovereignty”, MENA reported.

The investigation has included the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute. Sam LaHood, who heads the Egypt chapter of the IRI, is the son of Ray LaHood, Obama’s transportation secretary.

The other foreign NGOs targeted are the US-based International Centre for Journalists and Freedom House and Germany’s Konrad-Adenauer Foundation. A host of local NGOs are also under investigation, though their employees have not been called to trial with the 43.

In the list of charges, the five groups are accused of illegally receiving roughly $48mn in foreign funds.

Prosecutors, backed by armed police, raided the groups’ offices in December, confiscating their equipment and money and sealing their doors.

Activists’ claims

Activists say the raids, which coincided with growing dissent against Egypt’s military rulers, was part of a campaign to stamp out opposition to the generals who took charge after Mubarak.

The trials of the activists have sparked an increasingly acrid row between Egypt and the US, which provides Egypt’s military with roughly $1.3bn every year.

US lawmakers from both parties have repeatedly warned since December that the crackdown will force a review of the aid, but Obama’s proposed 2013 budget, released last week, still includes it.

“I truly believe we are approaching a precipice beyond which our bilateral relations could suffer permanent damage,” Democratic Representative Gary Ackerman said last week during a hearing about the crisis.

Driving force

Fayza Aboul Naga, Egypt’s international cooperation and planning minister, is widely seen as the driving force behind the probe. She held the same position in Mubarak’s cabinet and is one of only two ministers who maintained their positions after the revolution.

American analysts and officials accuse Aboul Naga of initiating the investigation after the US decided to authorise roughly $40mn in direct funding to the NGOs, rather than routing it through Aboul Naga’s ministry as was historically done.

Aboul Naga testified to investigating judges in October that the United States was using the groups to further its interests and those of Israel, and to cause “chaos” in Egypt, MENA reported earlier.

The investigation and court case have continued despite numerous phone calls and meetings between Egyptian and US officials apparently aimed at ending the case. Obama has personally called Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the chief of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

Egypt has dispatched a military delegation to Washington, and General Martin Dempsey, the head of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, met Tantawi and other SCAF generals in Egypt last week.

Egypt’s military has said it cannot interfere in the judiciary’s work, though Tantawi did issue a statement last week stressing the good ties between the two countries, a possible suggestion to the judiciary to go easy.

On Saturday, the government’s flagship Al-Ahram newspaper reported that Dempsey had asked for Egypt to allow the Americans to fly back with him. His request was turned down by Egyptian officials who told him it was up to the judiciary to lift the travel ban in place on the defendants, the newspaper said.

Source: News Agencies