Egyptian soldiers stand guard in front of the US National Democratic Institute, an NGO in Cairo
Egyptian soldiers stand guard in front of the US National Democratic Institute, an NGO in Cairo in 2011. A new trial of democracy activists begins in Cairo, after the previous judges dropped out and the foreign defendants left the country when a travel ban was lifted. © Filippo Monteforte - AFP/File
Egyptian soldiers stand guard in front of the US National Democratic Institute, an NGO in Cairo
AFP
Last updated: March 8, 2012

New NGO trial begins in Cairo

A trial of democracy activists in Cairo, the source of tensions between Egypt and the United States before foreign defendants left the country when a travel ban was lifted, was on Thursday adjourned to April 10.

Fifteen accused attended the hearing in the outskirts of Cairo, including one American, Robert Becker, who refused to leave the country with colleagues.

After less than an hour, the chaotic hearing was adjourned to April 10 to allow judges time to examine the defendants' files.

The case against 43 defendants -- 16 Egyptians and 27 foreign nationals -- in which the activists were accused of receiving illicit foreign funds to operate unlicensed NGOs, caused a crisis in relations between the United States and its close ally Egypt.

After months of pressure from Washington, 13 of the foreign defendants including six Americans, were allowed to fly out of Cairo airport after posting bail last week, sparking outrage in Egypt. Other foreign defendants were already out of the country.

The travel ban was lifted after the trial judges recused themselves in the face of what they said was intervention by the authorities.

Thursday's hearing was briefly suspended by the judge after outbursts from civil society lawyers over their "indignation" that the foreign defendants had been allowed to travel.

"Where is the dignity in Egypt? Down with America!," shouted one lawyer.

"This is a case of espionage and a plot against the people," said another lawyer, who insisted "Egypt's heart is bleeding."

One lawyer even called for the execution of "those who compromised the integrity of Egyptian territory."

"It's clearly a politicised case. Have we ever in Egypt seen investigating judges holding a press conference," said one of the lawyers for the defence, Hafez Abu Saeda.

One of the defendants, Nancy Okeal, who heads Egypt's chapter of Freedom House, said she was "optimistic."

"I'm very optimistic. We have nothing to hide and are convinced of our innocence. If the civil society lawyers have proof, let them show it," she told AFP.

Human Rights Watch has urged Egypt to drop the charges against the non-governmental groups, which include National Democratic Institute, International Republican Institute and Freedom House.

"Egypt's judges have in the past protected non-governmental groups and dismissed politicised charges against dissidents," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch in a statement on Thursday.

"This is an opportunity to end a politicised saga by throwing out the case while parliament drafts a new law that will decriminalise peaceful activity by non-governmental groups," he said.

The group said the outrage caused by the lifting of the travel ban should not be "grounds to punish the workers."

The United States said last week it remained concerned over the issue, but stressed its commitment to strong ties with Egypt.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland also said that Washington still wanted the case dismissed.

"We will continue to work with the Egyptian government to see if we can get this case dismissed, not only for our people but also for the Egyptians, because we think this case was unwarranted from the beginning," she said.

Washington had suggested the trial could imperil its more than one billion dollars in annual aid to Egypt, much of it funnelled to the ruling military which took power after an uprising ousted president Hosni Mubarak a year ago.

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