An Egyptian court adjourned the trial of dozens of democracy activists including 16 Americans yesterday at the opening session of a case that has threatened ties between Cairo and Washington and US$1.3 billion in annual US military aid.
Forty-three foreign and Egyptian non-profit workers — including the son of the US transportation secretary — are accused of receiving illegal funds from abroad and carrying out political activities unrelated to their civil society work.
Judge Mahmud Mohamed Shukry adjourned the trial until April 26 at the end of the session in the rowdy chamber, where television reporters crowded around him and an interior ministry official threatened to expel journalists.
His decision could give more time for a diplomatic solution to the case, lawyers said.
“The time set allows for the NGO law to be amended and this could leave room for lawyers to argue that the defendants are not guilty. A fine may be demanded, however,” said Khaled Suleiman, a lawyer acting against the defendants.
In the crowded courtroom on the outskirts of Cairo, lawyers who said they were volunteering in the case against the activists, demanded the defendants be imprisoned and accused them of “espionage.”
“These organizations are accused of espionage and going against the law. Most of them are in contact with the CIA. These organizations gathered information and reports on Egypt and sent them to the US State Department,” Suleiman said.
Shukry said the defendants were free to leave the court and would not be held in detention until the next hearing.
Those accused in the case were banned from leaving Egypt pending the trial and some of the US citizens targeted in the probe have taken refuge at the US embassy, including Sam LaHood, son of US Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and head of the Egyptian chapter of the International Republican Institute.
Egyptian citizen Nancy Okail, who heads the country’s chapter of the US-based democracy advocacy group Freedom House, said before the hearing began that she would be in court.
“I want to stand for this battle. I don’t think I have anything to hide,” she said.
Thirteen defendants stood behind the courtroom’s bars, all Egyptians. They appeared to be relaxed during recesses, using their mobile phones and talking to one another.
Several of the accused foreigners were already abroad when the travel ban was enacted. Many of the activists had not been formally summoned to appear before the court.
Outside the courthouse, about 20 hardline Islamists staged a protest, holding banners of Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind Egyptian cleric jailed after a terrorism conviction in the US.
The US, the main foreign benefactor of Egypt’s military rulers, has suggested that the trial of the activists may imperil that aid.
Washington provides about US$1.3 billion annually in military aid to Cairo, in addition to development assistance.
A senior US administration official said in the Moroccan capital Rabat late on Saturday that “intense” talks were under way to resolve the issue of the democracy activists.