|Lead judge Mohammed Shoukry said onTuesday that “the court felt uneasiness” in handling the case [AFP]
All three judges in Egypt’s trial of 43 NGO workers have pulled out of the case, according to a court official.
The defendants, including 16 US citizens, are charged with using illegal foreign funds to foment unrest that has roiled Egypt over the past year.
The non-governmental organisations flatly deny the charges, and US officials have hinted foreign aid to Egypt could be in jeopardy because of the case.
Mohammed Shoukry, the lead judge in the case, said on Tuesday that “the court felt uneasiness” in handling the case, according to a court official. He did not elaborate.
The trial has so far only made it as far as its opening session, and would need to be restarted with a new panel of judges.
Combined with indications that the two countries are trying to find an acceptable resolution to the crisis, there is speculation that the case could be dropped.
|The trial was expected to reconvene on April 26
Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, told two senate panels on Tuesday that the US and Egypt, which has long been considered a close ally of Washington, were “in very intensive discussions about finding a solution”.
“We’ve had a lot of very tough conversations,” she said. “We’re moving toward a resolution. It’s important that they know that we are continuing to push them,” Clinton said.
The US has threatened to cut off up to $1.3bn in military aid and another $250m in economic assistance to Egypt over the case.
Al Jazeera’s Mike Hanna, reporting from Cairo, said: “The head of the appeal court will have to appoint another three judges and the whole trial will have to begin again.
“The reason for the judges’ action is not particularly clear and the timing, coming after the statement by Hillary Clinton, may or may not have influenced their actions,” he said.
PJ Crowley, the former US state department spokesperson, told Al Jazeera that all sides involved in the politically charged case were trying to figure out how to resolve the situation with the least damage possible.
“The US has been very fervent in terms of decrying the prosecution of NGOs, and what you have here, unfortunately, is a clash of two democratic principles that Egypt needs to embrace,” he said.
“On one hand, to develop a system of free and fair elections so that more people can participate in the political process and have their voices heard, and that’s what the NGOs were trying to do to,” Crowley said.
“On the other hand, you need the fundamental pillar of democracy that is an independent judiciary, and these judges for whatever reasons are indicating that they are uncomfortable with the position they were put in.”
Our correspondent said that Sunday’s opening hearing in the case, which was not attended by most of the defendants, had been marked by “absolute pandemonium”.
“One of the principle witnesses is the minister of planning and international co-operation. She argued in her evidence, that Al Jazeera has seen, that NGOs are part of an outside plot to foment civil dissent in Egypt.
“This case is as much to do with Egypt’s insistence on its sovereignty as it has to do with the NGO workers. The judges may be uncomfortable handling something that is less to do with the law but with wider political and diplomatic issues.”
The affair began in December when Egyptian security raided 17 offices of 10 groups, confiscating documents and equipment.
It led to charges that the groups, including human rights organisations, had financed protests over the past year with illegally obtained funds and had failed to register with the government as required.
The groups insist their financing is transparent, and say that all their efforts to register have been stalled by the Egyptian government.
Egyptian officials claim the matter is entirely in the hands of the judiciary, and many view the US threats as unacceptable meddling.
Of the 43 defendants in the case, 16 are from the US, 16 are Egyptians, and others are German, Palestinian, Serbian and Jordanian. Of the 16 US citizens, seven have been banned from leaving Egypt, among them Sam LaHood, son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. Several have taken refuge at the US embassy in Cairo.
The 43 worked for the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, Freedom House, a group that trains journalists and a German nonprofit organisation. If convicted, they could face up to five years in prison.