By Maggie Michael / AP
CAIRO: Egypt has appointed new judges to hear the trial of 43 democracy workers, days after six Americans among those charged left the country with nearly $5 million in bail posted, the state-run news agency reported Saturday.
The Middle East News Agency said the first hearing in the new trial will take place March 8.
The announcement came as US officials described the American-Egyptian relationship as “strong” and said that Washington would help Cairo to support the efforts of the International Monetary Fund to conclude an economic reform package, in a sign that the worst crisis in the two countries’ relationship in decades was on the mend.
It also came as parliamentarians and lawmakers threatened to take action against Egypt’s ruling military council for allegedly circumventing the rule of law by striking a backdoor deal with Washington to allow US citizens to escape justice.
The 43 civil society workers, who include 16 Americans with the rest being Egyptians and other nationalities, have been accused of stoking unrest with foreign funding.
Seven of the Americans had a travel ban imposed on them. All but one of them left Egypt on Thursday after the US posted almost $5 million in bail and the ban was lifted. The US has said the decision about whether they return should their appearance at court be demanded was up to each individual.
The six were among 13 people allowed to leave Egypt. The other defendants are Egyptian, Palestinian, Norwegian, Serbian and German nationals and if convicted they face jail terms of up to five years.
State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said in a statement Saturday that the NGO issue is a matter of serious continuing concern for the United States, but affirmed that relations with Egypt are “strong.”
“Despite the recent strains, and differences on certain issues, the fundamentals of this strategic relationship remain strong,” she said.
She said the United States continues to support the efforts of the IMF to conclude an economic reform program with Egypt. The country is seeking a loan agreement for over $3 billion, a much-needed financial boost amid the ongoing economic crisis.
“The United States continues to support the efforts of the IMF to conclude an economic reform and stabilization program with Egypt and remains in close touch with other donors on ways to assist the Egyptian economy,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement.
“The United States is also committed to ensuring Egypt’s economic and financial stability,” she said.
The case against the democracy groups brought US-Egyptian relations to their lowest level in decades, with American lawmakers threatening to withhold the country’s $1.3 billion aid package.
Nuland said the issue “is a matter of serious continuing concern for the United States.”
The sudden turn-around, including the swift lifting of the travel ban following extensive US-Egyptian negotiations, has sparked public anger against the ruling military council. It has renewed calls to purge the judiciary of Mubarak-era officials accused of trying to compromise judicial independence.
This reopens an old issue in Egyptian politics, but with a new twist: ousted president Hosni Mubarak was frequently accused by his critics of subverting judicial independence to suppress Egyptian democracy advocates, while his successors are now accused of manipulating the judicial system to let American democracy advocates go free.
Critics of the military council say that they are not pressing for the Americans’ prosecution and that their guilt or innocence is not the issue, but that judges should decide the case rather than US pressure.
Egypt’s newly elected parliament on Saturday said it will question the prime minister on March 11 over the reasons behind lifting the travel ban and whether the judges looking into the case came under political pressure.
Local newspapers have reported that lawyers have filed independent suits against Egypt’s military ruler Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi and other officials accusing them of collaborating in helping the Americans to flee justice.
Outrage about a suspected deal spiked after three judges hearing the case abruptly pulled out on Tuesday citing “uneasiness.” The presiding judge Mohamed Shoukry hinted in interviews with Egyptian dailies that he was subject to pressure.
Senior judge Abdel-Moez Ibrahim said in a state TV interview that Shoukry’s son was asked to step down because he had partners who worked for the US Embassy, and this could make it difficult for him to judge the case impartially. Shourky denies that his son works with anyone linked to employees at the US Embassy.
Ibrahim had said that the controversial decision to lift a travel ban on the foreign defendants was taken after it became apparent the charges were misdemeanors, AFP reported. But the case has again been referred to a criminal court, MENA reported.
The state-run Al-Ahram daily meanwhile quoted an unnamed government official as saying that lifting the travel ban on the Americans was part of a deal struck between the ruling military generals and the US government. The report could not be verified independently.
According to the report, the official said the United States will help Egypt secure $50 billion in aid from US and Arab countries and will help speed up the IMF loan, in addition to another $3.4 billion from the World Bank.
Egypt’s economy has reeled from the overall effect of the uprising, with net international reserves down 50 percent year-on-year by the end of December.
Meanwhile, Nuland said that Egypt and the United States “continue to work together to protect regional peace and security and to address the full range of regional issues before us.”
“The United States and Egypt have been close partners for many decades, and we look forward to a close partnership for many decades to come.” –Additional reporting by Agencies