By Heba Fahmy
CAIRO: Lifting the travel ban on the foreign defendants in the NGOs case infuriated citizens and judges, who saw the decision and other developments in the trial as a flagrant infringement on judicial independence.
“Lifting the ban on the foreign defendants involved in the NGOs case is a flagrant violation on the state’s sovereignty and on the independence of Egypt’s judiciary,” Councilor Mahmoud El-Sherif, secretary general and spokesperson of the Judges’ Club, told Daily News Egypt on Friday.
El-Sherif said the Judges Club had called on the Supreme Judicial Council to investigate the case.
Fifteen foreigners including eight Americans, accused of operating the NGOs without a license and receiving illicit foreign funds, were flown out of Egypt Thursday, a day after the travel ban was lifted, the official MENA news agency said.
Cairo airport officials said 17 foreigners, including nine Americans, had left, and it was not immediately clear why there was a discrepancy in the figures.
By Friday morning they were in Cyprus waiting to be flown home.
In the evening, three of the Americans set off on the next stage of their journey home, leaving a transit stop in Cyprus, authorities on the island told Reuters.
The campaigners, who included Sam LaHood, son of US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, took a commercial flight out of Cyprus on Friday morning, Reuters reported. “The remainder will leave Cyprus in coming hours on commercial flights,” the official said.
The trial, however, continues, according to Fayza Aboul Naga, the international cooperation minister known to be the driving force behind the investigations.
The decision caused outrage among many, who believed Egyptian authorities folded under US pressure in complete disregard of judicial independence. The presence of a special US plane to pick up the defendants from Cairo, along with other developments in the case, aggravated Egyptians even more.
The panel of judges assigned to the case had recused itself a day earlier. The head of the Cairo Appeals Court Abdel Moez Ibrahim also said Thursday that the case, initially referred to the criminal court, was in fact a misdemeanor.
Following claims by officials that the NGOs in question were implementing a destructive foreign agenda, including a dubious plan to divide Egypt, many Egyptians saw the trial as a battle of dignity between Egypt and the US.
Seeing the government backing down frustrated many, who saw that Egyptian authorities have failed to live up to their proclaimed dignified and confrontational stance.
“This decision [to lift the travel ban] shows that Egypt’s judiciary isn’t independent and is vulnerable to intervention,” former head of Alexandria Cassation Court, Justice Ahmed Mekky, told DNE.
Mekky said that proposals to amend laws regulating the judicial system and guaranteeing its independence were filed to the People’s Assembly, but is yet to be reviewed.
MP Wahid Abdel Meguid, who ran on electoral lists spearheaded by the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), slammed the decision. He said that the PA would call for interrogating the ministers of interior, international cooperation and social affairs, according to state news portal egynews.net.
The stance of the Muslim Brotherhood and its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, remains obscure.
While FJP MPs have reportedly said they would file interpolations about the developments in the case, other reports and statements by US officials indicate that the group had a hand in reaching a solution with Washington.
The decision was expected to ease tensions with Washington, which had urged the ruling military council to resolve the case. American officials and legislators had suggested the withdrawal of $1.3 billion in US aid to its key Egypt’s military forces.
Tug of war
Lawyer and law professor Hossam Lotfi said US laws prohibit giving aid to countries under military rule. There’s a great possibility that the new president will replace members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), according to Lotfi, who argued that the NGO trial was used as a way to pressure the US to move forward with giving SCAF the aid.
“SCAF wants to swiftly receive its aid before handing over power to the new president by the end of June,” he said.
“People started to believe that SCAF were following a new strategy with the US protecting the state’s dignity and sovereignty,” he added, “But that all blew out in flames once the ban was lifted.”
Understanding the developments in the trial, however, isn’t confined to the boundaries of Egypt’s political scene.
Strategic expert and former military officer Safwat El-Zayat noted that it was election year in the US, a critical time for President Barack Obama and his administration.
“Spreading US values of democracy and freedom in the world and protecting US citizens are on top of the administration’s priorities, which is one of the reasons why the US reacted so strongly to the trial,” El-Zayat said.
On his part, Sherif argued that this case, widely perceived as political, should have been negotiated among the two states without bringing the judiciary into the fray and compromising its integrity.
Politics of a travel ban
There have been conflicting reports regarding who decided to lift the travel ban on the defendants after the panel of judges headed by Judge Mahmoud Mohamed Shoukry recused itself, expressing “unease” in carrying on with the trial.
Mekky and civil society lawyers involved in the case said that the panel withdrew after the head of the appeals court urged them to lift the travel ban, deeming it an intervention in the judiciary.
Judge Shoukry said that according to the law, he wouldn’t disclose the reasons behind the panel’s withdrawal from the case to the public.
“I will write a memo including the reasons and it’ll be sent secretly to the Supreme Judicial Council and the Minister of Justice,” Shoukry said in a phone interview with Dream TV late on Thursday.
Lawyer Negad Al-Borei, representing some of the foreign defendants, said that a new panel of judges was assigned and it issued the decision, while other defense lawyers on the case said that the grievances department issued the decision after the panel of judges recused itself.
The legitimacy of this decision was also a question of debate among legal experts.
Shoukry said that an appeal to lift the travel ban from non-Egyptian defendants was illegal because they didn’t attend the first session of the trial which was held last week.
“A defendant cannot make any request in font of the criminal court if they did not attend the session, according to the law,” he explained.
However, Lotfi and Tawhid Ramzy, defense lawyer representing workers affiliated with IRI, disagreed, saying that the decision was legally sound.
Only 14 Egyptian defendants attended the court session held last week and were placed inside the dock, in accordance with procedures.
Several of the Americans have sought refuge in their Cairo embassy, including Sam LaHood, the head of the US-based International Republican Institute.
According to the New York Times, American officials have said that it is almost unthinkable that the defendants will return to Egypt, noting the “humiliation” of their Egyptian counterparts by making them stand in the dock.
On the other hand, Ramzy said that the defendants will probably just visit their families and return for the next court session, adding that there were no grounds for imposing a travel ban in the first place.
Shoukry said that during his 40 years working in the legal system, he never heard of a defendant paying bail to lift a travel ban.
The court had set bail of LE 2 million ($330,000) for each defendant, which according to American officials was paid by the NGOs. The defendants reportedly signed documents pledging to attend the next hearing.
“This happens only when the defendants are imprisoned pending the trial and they have a known place of residence” and they pose no flight risk, Shoukry said.
On the other hand, US senates including John McCain, Lindsey Graham and John Hoffman hailed the decision to lift the travel ban, adding that this case was about Egyptian democracy not the US, according to MENA.
“A country like the US that preaches democracy should respect Egypt’s judiciary,” said Sherif.