After a yearlong trial, an Egyptian court has convicted 43 foreign NGO workers—including 16 Americans—of operating without a proper license, handing down jail terms ranging from one to five years.
The court also declared the closure of five foreign nonprofit organizations operating in Egypt and ordered the confiscation of their funds. They are the U.S.-based Freedom House, the International Center for Journalists, the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, and Germany’s Konrad Adenauer Foundation. Twenty-seven of the 43 defendants, including all but one of the Americans, were tried in absentia.
Among the Americans to receive a five-year sentence and be fined 1,000 Egyptian pounds ($143) is Sam LaHood, son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. Calls to his office in Washington, D.C., were not immediately returned.
Robert Becker, an organizer with the Tanzeem Group and the only American to stand before the court, was sentenced to two years in prison. “Maintaining my innocence on charges of starting NGO six years before I actually arrived in Egypt,” he wrote on Twitter following the verdict. Becker has refused to leave Egypt in solidarity with his Egyptian colleagues who could not leave. He wrote on his blog Monday night: “I was told it would be best for me to go home, so that is exactly where I will be… home, in Cairo.”
Secretary of State John Kerry released a statement saying that America is “deeply concerned by the guilty verdicts and sentences, including the suspended sentences, handed down by an Egyptian court today against 43 NGO representatives in what was a politically motivated trial.” The statement also described the decision as “incompatible with the transition to democracy” in Egypt.
“From day one this was a political case to achieve silly revenge by former regime people in the intelligence, judiciary, and the media, but it evolved on its own for several reasons and burnt a lot of people who were not involved along the way,” Sherif Mansour, one of the Americans sentenced (in absentia) to two years in prison, tells The Daily Beast. “We are going to continue to challenge the case within the legal system and with the local and international media and community.”
The NGO staffers were called to trial in December 2011 under the then-ruling military council on charges of illegally obtaining foreign funds and failing to register their organizations in accordance with Egyptian law. The decision prompted Egyptian security forces to raid 17 NGOs, seizing documents, laptops, and equipment, while staffers were held by security forces in their offices until the search and seizure were complete.
A travel ban on the foreign defendants was temporarily lifted in March 2012, after the three presiding judges recused themselves from the trial without reason. At least 13 of the NGO staffers, including several Americans, fled Egypt on a U.S. military plane shortly thereafter.
The case created a temporary schism in U.S.-Egypt relations during the volatile period following Egypt’s 2011 revolution, sparking criticism among some in Washington over the $1.3 billion in military aid Egypt receives annually from the U.S. However, tensions have eased somewhat since then—Secretary of State John Kerry only last month allocated an additional $250 million in American aid to support Egypt’s “future as a democracy.”
The complaint was raised at a time when the military council had grown deeply unpopular among Egyptians who were demanding an expedited transition after the fall of former president Hosni Mubarak. After Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, was elected president last June, many were hopeful that he would reverse some of the controversial policies and decrees issued by the ruling junta. His failure to do so in some cases has led to his government’s decline in popularity, even among many of its supporters.
Last week Human Rights Watch and 40 Egyptian rights groups said in a joint statement that an Egyptian draft law regulating nongovernmental organizations would restrict the funding and operation of independent groups. Critics have also noted that the law is too ambiguous and makes it extremely difficult to operate inside Egypt.
The verdict has sparked an outcry from opposition groups who say the government of President Morsi has grown intolerant of any groups that seek to criticize or challenge the authority of the ruling Islamist Freedom and Justice Party.
"The convictions in the NGO case are the tip of the iceberg for broader issues of civil rights in Egypt," said Charles Dunne, the director of the Middle East and North Africa programs at Freedom House. "And there is a proposed NGO law now which is far more restrictive than the one that is in effect."