By Heba Fahmy
CAIRO: The trial of 43 pro-democracy activists, accused of receiving illegal foreign funding and conducting unlicensed activity, was adjourned to April 26, in the presence of 14 of the defendants.
The courtroom broke into chants of “Down with military rule” after the trial was adjourned.
Defense lawyers requested to allow them enough time to review the case documents.
The defendants include 19 American citizens and 16 Egyptians, according to the official state news agency, MENA. However, the US State Department has said only 16 Americans were facing trial.
The rest include Jordanians, Palestinians, Germans, Serbs and Norwegians. The Americans work for four US-based groups: the International Republican Institute (IRI), the National Democratic Institute (NDI), Freedom House and the International Center for Journalists.
The 14 Egyptian defendants that showed up were placed in the dock as per procedure. None of the defendants have been arrested pending the trial, but they are banned from leaving the country.
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.
The prosecution said the charges against the defendants include receiving illegal foreign funding directly in their personal bank accounts: over $22 million to IRI; $18 million to NDI; $4.4 million to Freedom House; $3 million to the International Center for Journalists; and €1,600,000 for the German Konrad-Adenauer Foundation, the only non-American NGO on the list.
The groups’ operations “infringe on Egyptian sovereignty,” said the prosecution.
Charges also include setting up headquarters without permits. IRI had set up five offices in Cairo, Giza, Alexandria and Luxor, the prosecution said.
“These accusations are completely groundless…my clients haven’t received illegal foreign funding,” defense lawyer Ahmed Abdel Hafiz, representing IRI officials Ahmed Shawqy and Ahmed Abdel Aziz, told Daily News Egypt.
Lawyer Ashraf Abou Doma, representing defendant Ahmed Adam, an IRI official, argued that these NGOs have been active since 2005.
“So suddenly they discovered now after more than five years that these NGOs are illegal?” Abou Doma told DNE.
Abdel-Hakim El-Kordy, lawyer representing Adam as well, agreed, adding that the interior ministry and the Supreme Electoral Commission (SEC) gave IRI clearance to observe the parliamentary elections which kicked off in Nov.28 as “international observers.”
“If it was an illegal NGO, it wouldn’t have received clearance,” he added.
Freedom House President David J. Kramer said earlier 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.”
Egyptian activists and US lawmakers also said the case was politically motivated.
Prosecutors, backed by police, raided the groups’ offices in December, confiscating equipment and sealing their doors.
Civil society lawyers weighed in on the accusations, demanding that the defendants be sentenced to death for espionage, which is not one of the prosecution’s charges.
Lawyers said that the sentence ranges from six months or a fine to five years in prison according to Article 98 of the penal code under which the defendants are being prosecuted.
“These organizations are accused of espionage and violating the law. Most of them are in contact with the CIA. These organizations gathered information and reports on Egypt and sent them to the US State Department,” said Khaled Suleiman, general coordinator of the Association of Lawyers for Saving Egypt.
Civil society lawyers Osman El-Hefnawy, representing Hamada Shaaban, General Director in the Ministry of Housing, claimed that the defendants were paid to divide Egypt like Sudan, adding that his client was harmed as an Egyptian citizen by the defendants.
Some civil society lawyers requested financial compensation from the defendants ranging from LE 1,000 to LE 10,000 for the harm they caused to the country and its citizens.
However Tawhid Ramzy, lawyer representing defendants affiliated with IRI, denied that the defendants were involved in espionage or were on a mission to destabilize or divide the country.
“They only tried to raise the Egyptian people’s awareness regarding democracy and politics,” Ramzy told reporters following the session.
The prosecution accused the defendants of providing political training to political parties and groups to show them how to garner more votes during the parliamentary elections.
Video cameras and journalists cramped inside the courtroom. Judge Mahmoud Mohamed Shoukry called for recess just minutes after the session started due to the chaos and loud noise.
The bailiff threatened to throw all media out unless they kept order in the court.
Outside the courthouse, a small group of protesters called for the release of Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, former leader of Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya.
Mohamed, son of Sheikh Abdel-Rahman, managed to stand outside the courtroom along with a few protesters saying that Egyptian authorities should protect their citizens like the US government watches out for its citizens.
US officials have threatened to withhold Egypt’s annual aid package of $1.3 million in military assistance and $250 million in economic assistance.
But 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.
“If a deal struck to find these defendants innocent, then Sheikh Abdel Rahman should be freed in exchange for the defendants’ innocence,” Mohamed said.
Abdel Rahman, a blind 73-year-old cleric dubbed Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya’s godfather, was detained in 1992 and is serving a life sentence in the US for plotting to attack the United Nation headquarters and other New York City landmarks. –Additional reporting by Agencies.
Judge Mahmoud Mohamed Shoukry arrives at the court for the trial of fourteen Egyptian activists, who worked in Egypt with civil society groups, in Cairo on Feb. 26, 2012. AFP Photo/Khaled Desouki