Egypt court finds Americans guilty
None still in country following crackdown
CAIRO – The convictions Tuesday of 19 Americans who worked for pro-democracy groups highlight Egypt’s long-standing resistance to broadening freedoms in a country that has veered from secular autocratic rule to an increasingly restrictive Islamist-led government.
The Cairo criminal court case against the Americans on charges of operating illegally funded organizations strained relations between Washington and Cairo and hardened Egypt’s suspicions toward international civil society programs. The verdicts came as President Mohamed Morsi is seeking to further tighten regulations on pro-democracy groups.
Many of the American defendants, most of whom fled the country last year, were sentenced in absentia to five years in prison on accusations of agitating unrest. The only American defendant who remained in Egypt throughout the trial was Robert Becker, who was sentenced to two years. He left on a flight to Rome on Tuesday just hours after the verdict was announced, according to a Cairo airport official.
The case escalated into a political crisis between Washington and Cairo during the tense months following the 2011 uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak. Tuesday’s verdict further angered the U.S., which has urged Morsi to expand civil freedoms at a time when his government is clamping down on dissent.
“The United States is deeply concerned by the guilty verdicts and sentences in what was a politically motivated trial,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement.
Egyptian authorities have historically regarded international pro-democracy workers as spies or pesky infiltrators. Most of the Americans sentenced Tuesday belonged to Freedom House, the International Republican Institute, or IRI, and the National Democratic Institute, or NDI. The nongovernmental organizations had been offering educational programs ahead of Egypt’s elections when their offices were raided in late 2011.
The Americans, including Sam LaHood, son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, were among 43 defendants. Others charged were from Egypt, Serbia, Norway, Germany and several Arab states. Many of the Americans posted $330,000 bail each and left the country in early 2012 after Egypt temporarily lifted a travel ban amid pressure from Washington.
The verdicts surprised and infuriated members of Congress and human rights groups.
“This was a sham trial from the start,” said Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va. “If this decision stands, not a penny more of U.S. taxpayer money should go to the Muslim Brotherhood-led government in Cairo.”
Judge Makram Awad on Tuesday also ordered the closing of the U.S.-based groups involved in the trial.