By Nourhan Dakroury
The sentencing of NGO workers to prison in Cairo on charges of receiving foreign funding has attracted widespread international condemnation.
The Cairo Criminal court on Tuesday issued convictions to all 43 non-governmental organisation (NGO) workers involved in a case over foreign funding.
Of the defendants, 27 foreigners were sentenced to five years prison in absentia. Five foreigners were sentenced to two years, including an American who is still in Egypt. Eleven Egyptians received a one-year suspended sentence and an EGP 1000 fine.
The court also ordered the closure of five foreign NGOs and the seizure of their assets.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said he was “outraged about the harsh verdict against the NGO employees and the closure of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation.”
Westerwelle described the verdict as a “worrying decision that weakens the role of civil society as an important banner of democracy in the new democratic Egypt.”
The former head of the foundation’s Cairo office was sentenced to five years, and another staff member was sentenced to two years.
Freedom House also condemned the verdict, describing the trial as a “government-led witch-hunt intended to strangle civil society activity and limit free expression in post-revolutionary Egypt”.
Freedom House President David Kramer said: “This whole case was a disgrace from the very beginning, and the verdict makes a mockery of the Egyptian judicial process.”
Six current employees and one former employee of Freedom House were convicted. “The closure of our office is the least of my concerns right now,” Kramer said.
Nancy Okail, director of Egypt programmes at Freedom House and one of the convicted defendants, said: “President [Mohamed] Morsi’s government has continued [former president Hosni] Mubarak’s tactics of using threats, intimidation, and the arbitrary exercise of government power to suppress free expression and association in Egypt.”
Okail added: “How can the international community believe [Morsi] is committed to democracy when he has shut down groups and jailed staff who were helping Egyptians participate in shaping their country’s future?”
The International Center for Journalists (ICFJ), another of the NGOs closed by verdict, said in a statement: “None of our employees has done anything wrong, and our work has never been political.”
The statement added: “We were simply upgrading the skills and standards of Egyptian professional and citizen journalists. We will fight this decision until justice is served.”
Robert Becker, the American defendant who remained in Egypt, said in a blog post on Monday: “If evidence matters in an Egyptian court, tomorrow’s verdict will be not guilty.”
Becker added that the case was political from the start and he did not rule out a guilty verdict.
The convictions hinged on the fact the NGOs were unlicenced, making their offices in Egypt illegal, said Gamal Eid, human rights lawyer and founder of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information.
However, Dalia Zeyad, researcher at the Ibn Khaldoun Center, said the convictions were not “built on sensible evidence.”
Instead, Hafez Abou Se’da, head of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights, said the verdict was intended to “destroy the role of NGOs in Egypt, especially since [they were a key mechanism] in the detection of human rights violations in the Mubarak-era.”
Human rights lawyer Mohamed Zare’ noted that as suspended sentences, the convictions would be wiped after three years if they receive no further convictions in the interim.
This verdict came after President Morsi presented a draft of the new NGO law to the Shura Council for discussion.
A number of human rights lawyers and organisations have criticised the law, saying it would further restrict and harm civil society.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay submitted comments and proposals concerning the draft law.
On 31 May, 40 human rights organisations issued a joint statement asserting that the Muslim Brotherhood and its political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party, are working to impose greater restrictions on freedom of association.
Morsi, for his part, recently launched a conference for developmental and charity foundations, in which he assured that the state would place its “full trust” in NGOs and would not put pressure on their activities.