Court adjourns NGO case to April 10, HRW urges Egypt to drop charges

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By Mai Shams El-Din

CAIRO: Head of the Cairo Criminal Court, Justice Makram Awwad adjourned until April 10 the trial of non-Egyptian NGOs charged with illicit foreign funding, ordering the Prosecutor General to summon the American defendants who left the country to the next session.

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch urged Egyptian authorities to drop the charges against the defendants, in case it described as “politicized.”

Forty-three Egyptian and foreign defendants, belonging to five foreign NGOs, are facing charges of operating without a license and receiving foreign funding illegally.

The case, which targets groups including the US-funded National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute, has strained Egypt’s US ties and prompted threats from Washington to withdraw $1.3 billion of military aid.

Tension eased when Egypt lifted a travel ban on the foreigners facing trial, and six Americans were among 13 people allowed to leave Egypt. Only one stayed behind.

Lawyers at the trial debated the effectiveness of the court’s decision to arrest the American defendants who left the country and summon them to the next court hearing.

“This is a procedural decision,” rights lawyer Hafez Abou Saeda, representing defendants from Freedom House, told Daily News Egypt on Thursday, and the missing defendants may continued being tried in absentia.

“The court has to issue this decision in cases when defendants did not willingly attend the trial. The court will continue to request this throughout the case,” the member of the National Council of Human Rights said, adding that this will not halt proceedings.

Civil rights lawyers, on the other hand, hailed the decision, describing it as a “bold” move to appease the anger of Egyptians. Parliament has said it will probe and hold accountable those responsible for the decision to lift the travel ban.

“This decision at least will prevent them from entering the country again, because once they enter, they will be immediately arrested,” civil rights lawyer Ali Abou Bekier told DNE.

Another civil rights lawyer, Taher El-Baya’a told DNE that the decision is not effective.

“The Americans were inside the country during the first session of the trial and did not show up — what do you expect when they are already outside the country?” he asked.

Robert Becker, an American defendant working for NDI, was the only American who insisted on staying in Cairo and came to support his Egyptian colleagues, standing beside them in the courtroom cage on Thursday.

“Becker believes he did not do anything wrong. He respects the Egyptian judiciary and the Egyptian people and will not leave his colleagues,” Mohamed Younis, a lawyer who used to work with NDI, told DNE.

Civil rights lawyers demanded changing the charges to espionage, which may result in the death penalty if the accused are found guilty, according to the Egyptian Criminal Procedural Law.

Lawyers representing the defendants requested that the trial be referred to a misdemeanor court since the case is about licensing issues, and not a crime.

The judge walked out of the courtroom in the middle of the session when one of the civil rights lawyers interrupted the proceedings in protest against a previous judicial decision to lift the travel ban imposed on American defendants.

The lawyer, named Alaa Ahmed Dourgham, chanted “Down with America” and “Khaybar, Khaybar, Oh Jews,” citing a war in the time of Prophet Mohamed.

He demanded exchanging the American defendants with Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, who is serving a life sentence in the US for plotting to attack the United Nation headquarters and other New York City landmarks.

A protest supporting Abdel Rahman was organized in front of the court building in the Fifth Compound in New Cairo.

HRW to Egypt

HRW urged authorities to drop the charges against the defendants, criticizing a law that allows the government to control civil society organizations.

“Egypt’s judges have in the past protected non-governmental groups and dismissed politicized charges against dissidents,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at HRW in a statement released Wednesday.

“This is an opportunity to end a politicized saga by throwing out the case while parliament drafts a new law that will decriminalize peaceful activity by nongovernmental groups,” he added.

The statement slammed the current Law 84 of Association as it allows authorities, according to HRW, to control the activities of civil society organizations through selective licensing.

“The notorious 2002 Law 84 on Associations impedes the right of Egyptians to operate independent associations. It gives the government broad leeway to refuse or withhold licenses and to otherwise intervene in the registration, governance, and functioning of nongovernmental organizations. Reforming the associations law has been a long-term demand of Egyptian civil society,” the statement said.

“Under Mubarak the government and security agencies would frequently accuse NGO workers of espionage or threatening national security or unity to de-legitimize them,” Stork said.

“The smear campaign by Egyptian officials played out in the state media over the past months is further confirmation that not very much has changed in Egypt.”

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