CAIRO, June 4: An Egyptian court gave jail terms to 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 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 $1.3 billion in military aid each year.
The court ordered the closure of the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) involved in the case, including the US-based International Republican Institute (IRI), 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 $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. 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.”
There was no immediate comment from the US government.
A chilling effect’ on civil society: The government said the NGOs were operating illegally in Egypt and complained that after the anti-Mubarak revolt, the US government had diverted $150 million from its Egypt aid budget to these NGOs, breaking bilateral agreements.
Civil rights campaigners in Egypt saw it as part of a concerted campaign against NGOs waged by remnants of the Mubarak administration to crush the nascent democracy.
“The verdict is obviously going to have a chilling effect on the climate for civil society in Egypt, but that’s already been happening for some time,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Centre, a think-tank based in the Gulf.
The judge handed five-year sentences in absentia to other defendants identified as citizens of Norway, Serbia, Germany and Arab states and one whose nationality was not given.
Despite the furore over the case, the United States released its annual military aid for Egypt in March, 2012, saying US national security required continued military assistance.
The US-based groups were training Egyptians in advocacy, voter education and election monitoring.
The Muslim Brotherhood, banned under Mubarak, has come under fire for proposing new regulations that would severely restrict independent groups. Seeking to ease the concerns, President Mohamed Morsi last week submitted a new draft law to parliament. But Western and Egyptian critics say the draft still falls short.
The EU, a major donor to Cairo, said on June 2 it would unnecessarily constrain the work of NGOs in Egypt, while Washington said the bill imposed significant government controls on the activities and funding of civic groups.