An Egyptian court has sentenced several dozen workers of a non-governmental organizations, including Americans, to jail Tuesday in a case that has infuriated the U.S. government and democratic activists around the world.
The workers were accused of having illegal foreign funding. They denied any wrongdoing.
All but one of the Americans were sentenced in absentia, having left the country after posting $132,000 each in bail money.
In all, 43 NGO workers, including several Americans and other foreigners, were charged. The court sentenced 27 NGO workers in absentia to five-year sentences; 11 defendants to one-year suspended jail sentences; and five others to two-year sentences that were not suspended, the state-run Al Ahram newspaper reported.
The court also ordered the closure of five NGOs — the U.S.-based Freedom House, the International Democratic Institute, the National Democratic Institute, the International Center for Journalists and Germany’s Konrad Adenauer Foundation — and confiscated their funds.
“Freedom House condemns in the strongest possible terms the conviction of 43 NGO workers, including six currently with Freedom House and a former staff member, after a government-led witch-hunt intended to strangle civil society activity and limit free expression in post-revolutionary Egypt,” the agency said in a prepared statement.
Robert Becker of the National Democratic Institute was the only American who stayed behind to fight the charges, along with one German and 13 Egyptians, he said.
It was not immediately clear which sentence he was given.
On Monday, he wrote on his blog that if “evidence matters in an Egyptian court, tomorrow’s verdict will be not guilty.” But, he added, “this case has been political from the very beginning; so guilty is also real possibility, despite the lack of evidence.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States is “deeply concerned” about the result of “a politically-motivated trial.”
He called on Egypt to “work with civic groups as they respond to the Egyptian people’s aspirations for democracy as guaranteed in Egypt’s new constitution.”
Yehia Ghanem, an Egyptian who worked for the International Center for Journalists — an American NGO — received two years in jail and vowed to appeal.
Egyptian officials said the NGOs’ work contributed to international interference that was stoking continued protests against the government.
In December 2011, authorities raided the offices of 10 NGOs. The general prosecutor’s office said the raids were part of an investigation into allegations that the groups received illegal foreign financing and were operating without proper licenses.
The case sparked a crisis in relations between the United States and Egypt. The U.S. State Department called the charges “politically motivated.”
One of the Americans charged and sentenced in absentia is Sam LaHood, the country director of the International Republican Institute and the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
Human Rights Watch called on Egypt last year to drop the charges against the NGO workers, calling the case “a politicized saga.”
And the organization Human Rights First said it was “disturbed.”
“This prosecution had a chilling effect on the work of independent human rights and democracy promotion organizations in Egypt,” said Brian Dooley, director of the organization’s defenders program. “The fact that the court issued convictions in the case means that independent NGOs that wish to work in Egypt must do so under the threat of prosecution for exercising their basic human rights.”
– CNN NEWS