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article image15 Americans sentenced by Egyptian court for promoting democracy

By Robert Myles     Jun 5, 2013 in Politics
Cairo - An Egyptian court imposed jail terms yesterday to 43 accused from various countries said to be members of groups promoting democracy. Secretary of State John Kerry strongly criticized the verdicts as "incompatible with the transition to democracy."
The decision of the Egyptian court has plunged US-Egyptian relations to their lowest level since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s authoritarian former president, in February 2011. Amongst those given custodial sentences by the court were Americans, Europeans, Egyptians and those from other Arab states. In the cases of the Americans sentenced, Judge Makram Awad gave five-year sentences in absentia to at least 15 U.S. citizens who had left Egypt last year. One American who remains in Egypt was sentenced to two years in prison as was a German woman. Other sentences of five years imprisonment were handed down, in absentia, to nationals of Serbia, Norway and various Arab states, reports France 24.
Just months after the Egyptian revolution in late 2011, authorities in Egypt started tightening up on a number of organizations including groups based in the US, some linked to the Republican Party and some to the Democrats. For individual accused, penalties imposed by the Egyptian court ranged from suspended sentences and fines for Egyptian staff to five years imprisonment for international staff.
Organizations were accused of operating offices without licenses and using foreign funds. The court has ordered closure of the organizations’ Egyptian offices and seizure of their assets. The affected organizations are the US-based International Republican Institute (IRI), National Democratic Institute (NDI) International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) and Freedom House. Also falling foul of the Egyptian court was the German-based Konrad Adenauer Foundation. Both the NDI and the IRI said they intended to challenge the court’s decision. The affected US organisations were principally engaged in Egypt in providing training and guidance on advocacy, voter education and election monitoring.
On its website the IRI released a statement condemning the Egyptian court decision as an “assault against international and Egyptian nongovernmental organizations” and said it was “a politically motivated effort to squash Egypt’s growing civil society, orchestrated through the courts, in part by Mubarak-era hold-overs.”
The US State Department, too, was quick to condemn the Egyptian court verdicts but there was no hint of further repercussions such as a cut in US aid to Egypt. On military aid alone, Washington is estimated to supply assistance valued at $1.3 billion per annum.
Kerry slams court decision
In a statement released by the US State Department Secretary Kerry said the US government was “deeply concerned” at the court’s decision which, he said, “runs contrary to the universal principle of freedom of association and is incompatible with the transition to democracy.” Kerry went on to criticize the Egyptian government saying the closure of offices and seizures of assets “contradicts the Government of Egypt's commitments to support the role of civil society as a fundamental actor in a democracy and contributor to development, especially at this critical stage in the Egyptian people's democratic transition.” Secretary Kerry urged the Egyptian government “to work with civic groups as they respond to the Egyptian people’s aspirations for democracy as guaranteed in Egypt’s new constitution.”
One of the US citizens sentenced in absentia is the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. At an earlier stage in the investigation, Egyptian authorities placed travel bans on suspects. A number of US citizens accused took refuge at the US embassy in Cairo. Those who decided to leave Egypt were permitted to do so but only after each posted bail of £330,000, thought to have been funded by the US government.
The American who remained behind in Egypt has been identified as Robert Becker, a former employee of the NDI. The German woman sentenced to two years is believed to be employed by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. France 24 reports German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle joined the US condemnation, saying “We are outraged and very concerned about the court's harsh decisions against the employees of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Cairo and the order to close the office.”
The Egyptian government claims the various international organizations were operating illegally in Egypt and accuses the US of having diverted £150 million from its Egyptian aid budget to US organizations operating in Egypt in breach of US-Egypt bilateral agreements. But civil rights campaigners see the court move as no more than an attempt by remnants of the former Mubarak regime to crush Egypt’s fledgling democracy. Quoted on NBC News, Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Centre, a Washington funded think-tank based in the Gulf, said, “The verdict is obviously going to have a chilling effect on the climate for civil society in Egypt, but that's already been happening for some time.”
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