By Nourhan Dakroury
US Secretary of State John Kerry has joined local and international human rights groups and lawyers in criticising Tuesday’s conviction of 43 NGO workers.
The Cairo Criminal Court sentenced the defendants to between one and five years in prison, in addition to an EGP 1,000 fine on charges of unlicensed organisations receiving foreign funding. The court ordered the closure of five foreign NGOs in Egypt and the seizure of their assets.
US Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday condemned the convictions, describing the trial as “politically motivated.”
Said Kerry: “This decision runs contrary to the universal principle of freedom of association and is incompatible with the transition to democracy.”
Kerry urged the Egyptian government to work with civic groups in order to accommodate “people’s aspirations for democracy as guaranteed in Egypt’s new constitution.”
Human Rights Watch condemned the verdict on Wednesday saying it “violates the right to freedom of association.”
It claimed the verdict was the result of “a political disagreement between Egyptian and US government,” and said the sentences were based on “a repressive law governing organisations as well as penal code provisions that are not compatible with respect for fundamental rights.”
Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director of Human Rights Watch, described the convictions as “unjust and based on an unjust law.”
The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information echoed Whitson’s statement, adding that the case was entirely devised by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) and former Mubarak-era figures to get back at civil society organisations shedding light on offences committed by SCAF against those opposing military rule.
The National Democratic Institute (NDI), one of the NGOs closed by the verdict, said in a statement on Tuesday it would appeal the decision, adding that the institute has never attempted to fund any political party or movement.
The NDI said: “The institute will do whatever it can to clear the names of its innocent employees,” adding that those convicted are “victims of an intergovernmental dispute between the U.S. and [the former] Egyptian government.”
Former NDI employee Robert Becker, the only American defendant who had remained in Egypt during the trial, tweeted on Tuesday that he had fled the country. “On my lawyer’s advice, I have unwillingly and angrily gone into exile until appeals get started,” he said.
Another of the NGOs, the Washington Institute, announced: “The decision is not only a giant leap backward for Egypt’s dwindling democratic prospects, but also a fundamental assault on American interests, which include protecting US citizens and institutions abroad from the depredations of foreign governments – particularly those that are among the top recipients of US foreign aid.”
The verdict came out on the same day that the Shura Council began discussing the new NGO draft law presented by President Mohamed Morsi, which has been criticised by various human rights organisations for putting further restrictions on civil society in Egypt.
Whitson criticised the law saying that it would “reinforce and formalise state control over non-governmental groups by empowering the government to deny them both domestic and international funding”.
She added: “If President Morsi wishes to distance himself from the legacy of this politically motivated trial, he should amend the new draft NGO law in line with international standards instead of pushing through a law which would allow the government to control and block independent organisations.”