CAIRO: Political pressure may be the reason why the panel of judges overseeing the probe against foreign NGOs in Egypt withdrew from the case on Tuesday, experts said.
The official Middle East News Agency (MENA) said Wednesday that the panel, headed by Judge Mahmoud Mohamed Shoukry, abandoned the case, expressing “unease” in carrying on with the trial.
Former head of Alexandria Cassation Court, Justice Ahmed Mekky told Daily News Egypt that the panel of judges received a call from the head of the Appeals Court, urging them to lift the travel ban imposed on the non-Egyptian defendants in the case.
“The [judges] panel may have considered this an intervention,” Mekky said, adding that a request of this kind by the Appeals Court may have put the judges in a tough spot.
Late on Wednesday, judicial sources told Reuters that Egypt indeed decided to lift a travel ban preventing the Americans in the case from leaving the country. It was not immediately clear when any of the activists would leave the country.
“The assistant to the attorney general, following a request from the investigating judges, has issued an order to lift the ban,” a judicial source told Reuters, adding that charges had not been dropped against any of those involved.
Two other judicial sources also said a decision to lift the travel ban from the US citizens had been taken. The US embassy had no immediate comment on the case.
Earlier on Wednesday, Mekky had said the judges who resigned from the case did not want to seem pressured to lift or maintain the travel ban.
“What if the judges already decided to lift the travel ban because they believe it is the right thing to do? The public may still view the decision as being a result of pressure exerted on them,” Mekky said.
A total of 43 Egyptian and foreign NGO workers are facing trial, accused of operating without licenses and receiving illegal foreign funding. Among those referred to trial are 19 Americans — although some reports cite only 16 — including the son of US Transport Secretary Ray LaHood, along with 14 Egyptians.
Mekky said that, on the other hand, “if the judges had decided not to lift the travel ban to avoid accusations of lack of independence, they would have acted unfairly towards the defendants,” he added.
In similar cases, he said, the best scenario is to withdraw, as a sign of protest against the state’s intervention in judicial decisions, citing a possible request from the Egyptian government to the Appeals Court, which was later delivered to the judges.
In such instances, the case is normally referred to the court of appeals, which appoints a new panel of judges, AFP reported.
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told two Senate panels on Tuesday that the United States and Egypt are “in very intensive discussions about finding a solution.”
“We’ve had a lot of very tough conversations,” she said. “We’re moving toward a resolution,” AP quoted Clinton as saying.
“It’s important that they know that we are continuing to push them,” she said.
Khaled Suleiman, general coordinator of the Association of Lawyers for Saving Egypt and a civil rights lawyer in the case, slammed the remarks made by Clinton, considering them “flagrant intervention” by the US administration.
“I believe that the judges pulled of the case due to political pressure,” the lawyer told DNE.
“I call on the panel to issue an official statement about the real reasons behind withdrawing from investigating the case although the law gives them the right not to reveal the reasons,” he said.
The case is a matter of national security and hence transparency is needed, he added.
Ahmed Abdel Hafez, a lawyer representing some defendants from the International Republican Institute, told DNE that “possible political adaptations” between the Egyptian and US governments may have resulted in pressuring the judges.
“This may lead to a feeling by the judges that they cannot operate freely in such atmosphere,” the lawyer said.
“The current remarks by US administration could be a reason for the withdrawal, we do not know,” he added.
The trial’s first session was held on Sunday with the judges adjourning the case to April 26.
The case has strained US-Egypt ties with Clinton and US lawmakers warning the military authorities in power since Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, that $1.3 billion in annual aid is at stake.
The trial follows raids in December on the IRI, the National Democratic Institute, the International Center for Journalists and Freedom House — all from the United States — as well as on Egyptian and other groups.
Several of the American suspects later sought refuge in their embassy in Cairo, including Sam LaHood, head of the Egyptian chapter of the IRI.
Some of the groups had helped train activists and candidates to campaign in parliamentary elections that opened last November, Egypt’s freest vote in decades.
The charges, which US legislators have derided as political, came as the military faced growing dissent from activists who demand the ruling generals immediately cede power to a civilian government.
In response, the generals have accused their opponents of seeking to destabilize Egypt.
Authorities have played on abundant suspicion in the country of foreign plots, seizing on the case as an example of intervention in the Arab world’s most populous country.
After it became the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, Egypt became the anchor of US diplomacy in the Middle East. –Additional reporting by AFP