CAIRO: Dozens of democracy activists including Americans go on trial in Egypt on Sunday on charges of receiving illegal funding, despite pleas from Washington that the charges be dropped.
Judicial sources say the 43 activists who worked with civil society groups, among them 16 American citizens, will stand trial before a Cairo court.
The state-run al-Ahram daily on Saturday reported that 19 Americans, not 16, were facing trial. The newspaper, quoting leaked Egyptian intelligence reports, said that some of the computers seized in the raid had sensitive information affecting Egypt’s national security.
Negad El-Borai, a lawyer for some of the US defendants, said he did not expect his clients to attend the hearing, however.
“I don’t expect them to come, given the way things are going,” he told AFP. None of the Americans have been arrested, but they and the other suspects are banned from leaving the country.”
Egyptian citizen Nancy Okail, who heads the country’s chapter of the US-based democracy advocacy group Freedom House, said she would attend the trial which is expected to start after noon in a Cairo suburb.
“I want to stand for this battle. I don’t think I have anything to hide,” she told AFP.
Several of the American suspects have sought refuge in their country’s embassy in Cairo, including Sam LaHood, son of US Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and head of the Egyptian chapter of the International Republican Institute.
Al-Ahram, quoting the intelligence report, charged that LaHood had advised his employees not to disclose their foreign nationalities under any circumstances. The charges against LaHood partly stem from the testimony of a woman named Dawlat Sweillam, who allegedly quit her job at IRI because of what she believed were activities that ran counter to Egyptian laws, according to the newspaper report.
The 43 defendants in the case — who include 16 Egyptians, as well as Germans, Norwegians, Palestinians, Serbs and Jordanians — have been charged with the illegal use of foreign funds to foment unrest and operating without a license. But the investigation fits into a broader campaign by Egypt’s rulers against alleged foreign influence since the ouster of longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak last year.
Rights groups have sharply criticized the investigation into the pro-democracy groups and the charges, saying they are part of an orchestrated effort by Egyptian authorities to silence critics and cripple civil society groups critical of the military’s handling of the country’s transition to democracy. Egyptian officials counter by saying the trial has nothing to do with the government and is in the judiciary’s hands.
The United States, the main foreign benefactor of Egypt’s military rulers, has suggested that the trial of the activists may imperil that aid.
Washington provides about $1.3 billion annually in military aid to Cairo, in addition to development assistance.
A senior US administration official said in the Moroccan capital Rabat late on Saturday that “intense” talks were under way to resolve the issue of the democracy activists.
“Intense discussions (are being held) with the Egyptians to try to resolve the situation within days,” the official said.
President Barack Obama has urged Egypt’s military rulers to drop the investigation, and high-level officials, including Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey and Republican Sen. John McCain, have flown in to Cairo to seek a solution.
The US official, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity due to the delicacy of the matter, said that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had raised the matter twice in person with Egypt’s foreign minister — once in London and once in Tunisia — in the past three days and that other senior US officials are actively involved.
The other foreign non-governmental organizations targeted are the US-based International Centre for Journalists and the German Konrad-Adenauer Foundation.
The defendants also include Egyptians, Germans, Palestinians, Norwegians and Serbs.
Some of the groups had helped to train activists and political candidates to campaign for parliamentary elections that began last November, in Egypt’s freest vote in decades.
Earlier this month the National Democratic Institute said in a statement that it denies the accusations and that it fulfilled all of the registration requirements for the past six years, including a number of updates provided in January.
Freedom House President David J. Kramer said this month that the charges against the NGOs indicates that freedom in Egypt “has only gotten worse” under Mubarak’s appointed ruling generals who took power after the longtime authoritarian leader was toppled.
“Let me state clearly that we do not view this situation as a legal matter involving rule of law,” Kramer said. “The charges are clearly political in nature and without foundation.”
Prosecutors, backed by police, raided the groups’ offices in December, confiscating equipment and sealing their doors.
While the trial involves foreign-funded NGOs, hundreds of Egyptian non-governmental organizations have also come under investigation from the government since Mubarak’s ouster.
Activists blame Mubarak-era laws that have been used to go after groups critical of state policies.
In a visit to Cairo last week, US Republican Senator John McCain said he was told by military ruler Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi that he was working “diligently” to resolve the issue.
But political intervention in the case would belie the authorities’ claim they do not interfere with the independent judiciary, which already faces one of its greatest tests in the murder and corruption trial of ex-president Hosni Mubarak.