CAIRO: A plane carrying American pro-democracy campaigners and other activists left Egypt on Thursday after a travel ban was lifted, an airport official said, a move that is likely to defuse the deepest row between Washington and Cairo in decades.
“They have left,” the airport official told Reuters, without giving further details. A US military plane had been sent to Egypt to take them, airport officials had said earlier.
The Egyptian minister seen as the prime mover behind the prosecution of pro-democracy activists, including Americans, insisted Thursday the case would proceed despite the lifting of a travel ban on the defendants.
Fayza Aboul Naga, the international cooperation minister believed to have launched the probe into the activists’ foreign non-governmental organizations, said the judiciary would appoint a new panel of judges after the previous one recused itself, the official MENA news agency reported.
“The trial of foreign funding in Egypt continues,” she said. The defendants are accused of operating the NGOs without a license and receiving illicit foreign funds.
The trial led to a rift with Washington, which demanded that Egypt drop the charges against activists, who include 19 Americans according to judicial sources.
The head of the Cairo appeals court Abdel Moez Ibrahim said on Thursday that the travel ban on the suspects had been lifted, provided they each paid LE 2 million (roughly $330,000/€247,000) in bail.
The amount had been paid, he added in a statement published by MENA.
Several of the Americans have sought refuge in their Cairo embassy, including Sam LaHood, the head of the US-based International Republican Institute and son of US transportation secretary Ray LaHood.
Airport security officials said 17 foreigners including nine Americans who had been on the no-fly list were in an airport terminal waiting to take a flight out of the country. They had earlier said all the foreigners were American.
The official MENA news agency reported that the Americans arrived at the airport in five vans, accompanied by a US embassy official.
Along with the Americans, the foreign defendants on trial on charges of receiving illicit foreign funds are Norwegian, Serbian, German, Palestinian and Jordanian.
Egyptian defendants were the only ones who appeared at the trial’s opening session on Sunday, days before the judges recused themselves without providing an explanation.
The other foreign groups involved in the trial are the National Democratic Institute, Freedom House, the International Centre for Journalists — all American — and the German Konrad Adenauer Foundation.
The trial, which came after raids on the groups’ offices in December, led to a crisis in relations between Egypt and Washington, a close ally of the strategic Middle Eastern country.
US officials had suggested the trial could imperil the more than one billion dollars in annual aid to Egypt, much of which goes to the ruling military.
The military, in power since an uprising ousted president Hosni Mubarak a year ago, appeared to have underestimated the fallout from the crackdown on the civil society groups.
The raids came amid growing unrest against the generals, as the authorities suggested that the regime’s opponents were directed by foreigners, playing on abundant suspicion in the country of foreign plots, particularly US and Israeli.