Egypt hands down jail terms for democracy promotion groups

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 June, 2013, 1:02am

An Egyptian court gave jail terms to 43 Americans, Europeans, Egyptians and other Arabs yesterday in a case against democracy promotion groups that plunged US-Egyptian ties into their worst crisis in decades.

Judge Makram Awad gave five-year sentences in absentia to at least 15 US citizens who left Egypt last year. He sentenced an American who stayed behind to two years in prison, and gave the same sentence to a German woman.

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 US$1.3 billion in military aid each year.

The court ordered the closure of the non-governmental organisations involved in the case, including the US-based International Republican Institute, National Democratic Institute (NDI) and Freedom House.

The Egyptian investigation focused on charges that the groups were operating without necessary approvals and had received funds from abroad illegally. Eleven Egyptians who faced lesser charges were handed one-year suspended sentences.

The Americans sentenced in absentia include the son of US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

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 US$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 deposed president Hosni Mubarak. Although the case is a legacy of that era, analysts say it further darkens prospects for an open society after the Islamist-led administration drew up a new NGO law seen as a threat to democracy.

The American who stayed behind is Robert Becker, a former NDI employee. Becker has maintained that his refusal to flee Egypt with fellow Americans who were in the country at the time of the crackdown on non-profit groups was to show solidarity with his Egyptian colleagues.

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," said German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle.

"The course taken by the Egyptian judiciary is very worrying. It weakens civil society as an important pillar of democracy in the new democratic Egypt."

Freedom House slammed Cairo's "witch-hunt" against civil society. "Freedom House condemns in the strongest possible terms the conviction of 43 NGO workers ... after a government-led witch-hunt intended to strangle civil society activity and limit free expression in post-revolutionary Egypt," it said.

Additional reporting by Agence-France-Presse