An Egyptian court convicted 43 Americans, Europeans, Egyptians and other Arabs on Tuesday 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 to 27 defendants tried in absentia, including 15 US citizens. Another American who stayed for the 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.
US Secretary of State John Kerry harshly criticized the decision, calling it “incompatible with the transition to democracy” and a violation of the government’s commitment to support civil society as it emerges from years of authoritarian rule by former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, a close US ally.
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.
Beginning in late 2011, Egypt’s crackdown on organizations that included US-based groups linked to the US’ 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 organizations (NGOs) involved in the case, including the US-based International Republican Institute (IRI), National Democratic Institute (NDI) and Freedom House.
Both the NDI and the IRI plan to challenge the verdict.
In Washington, Kerry issued a tough written statement saying the US was “deeply concerned,” but that did not hint at any consequences — such as a cut in US assistance to Egypt — as a result of the verdict.
US Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, a member of the influential Senate Appropriations Committee and a proponent of tying US military aid to Egypt to progress on democracy and rights, called the convictions “appalling and offensive.”
“If Egypt continues on this repressive path it will be increasingly difficult for the United States to support President [Mohamed] Morsi’s government,” he said.
Under a House amendment championed by Leahy, US military aid to Egypt may not be disbursed unless the US Department of State certifies that its government “is supporting the transition to civilian government, including holding free and fair elections [and] implementing policies to protect freedom of expression, association and religion and due process of law.”
The Americans sentenced in absentia include the son of US Secretary of Transportation 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 Egyptian 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.
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,” German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said.