The US secretary of state has harshly criticised the sentencing of dozens of non-governmental organisation (NGO) workers in Egypt.
John Kerry desribed the conviction and sentencing by an Egyptian court on Tuesday of 43 foreign nationals as “incompatible with the transition to democracy.”
The court sentenced the group of Americans, Europeans, Egyptians and other Arabs in a case against democracy promotion groups.
Beginning in late 2011, Egypt’s crackdown on organisations which included US-based groups linked to America’s two main political parties caused outrage in Washington, which supplies Cairo with $1.3bn in military aid each year.
The government said the NGOs were operating illegally in Egypt and complained that after the revolt that deposed longtime President Hosni Mubarak, the US government had diverted $150m from its Egypt aid budget to these NGOs, breaking bilateral agreements.
The State Department issued a tough statement in Kerry’s name but did not hint at any consequences – such as a cut in US assistance to Egypt – as a result of the verdict.
“The United States is deeply concerned by the guilty verdicts and sentences … handed down by an Egyptian court today against 43 NGO representatives in what was a politically motivated trial,” he said.
“The decision to close these organisations’ offices and seize their assets contradicts the government of Egypt’s commitments to support the role of civil society as a fundamental actor in a democracy.”
The Egyptian investigation focused on charges that the groups were operating without necessary approvals and had received funds from abroad illegally.
The judge on Tuesday gave five-year sentences to 27 defendants tried in absentia including 15 US citizens.
Another American who stayed for trial was given a two-year sentence but left Egypt on Tuesday on the advice of his lawyers.
A German woman was also given a two-year sentence.
The other defendants sentenced in absentia included citizens of Norway, Serbia, Germany and Arab states.
Eleven Egyptians who faced lesser charges were handed one-year suspended sentences.
The court ordered the closure of the NGOs involved in the case, including the US-based International Republican Institute (IRI), National Democratic Institute (NDI) and Freedom House.
Both NDI and IRI plan to challenge the verdict.
The Americans sentenced in absentia include the son of Ray LaHood, the US transportation secretary.
At one point Egypt placed travel bans on the suspects, including US citizens who took refuge in the US embassy.
They were allowed to leave the country on bail of $330,000 each, money that ultimately came from the US government.
Egypt was run at the time by a military council that assumed power from Mubarak.
Robert Becker, the American who stayed for the trial and a former NDI employee, boarded a flight for Rome shortly after the verdict against him was read, Cairo airport sources said.
“On my lawyers’ advice, I have unwillingly gone into exile until appeals get sorted out,” he wrote on his Twitter account.
The German sentenced to two years is an employee of the Berlin-based Konrad Adenauer Foundation.
“We are outraged and very concerned about the court’s harsh decisions against the employees of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Cairo and the order to close the office,” Guido Westerwelle, German foreign minister, said.
Last week, the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) and 40 Egyptian rights groups said an Egyptian draft law regulating non-governmental organisations would restrict the funding and operation of independent groups.
The contentious bill, proposed by President Mohamed Morsi and currently under debate by the country’s interim legislature, would allow the state to control nonprofits’ activities as well as their domestic and international funding, HRW said.
The current form of the bill is a serious regression from earlier versions, HRW said.