Egypt court jails 43 NGO members
Anti-Morsi protesters shout slogans outside the Supreme Court in Cairo, where judges are holding a protest against a new law currently under discussion at the Shura council, claiming the law should be discussed in Parliament. REUTERS PhotoCairo court yesterday sentenced 43 Egyptian and foreign employees of several non-governmental organizations (NGO), along with at least 15 U.S. citizens in absentia, to five years in jail for working illegally.
The sentences follow trials which came in the wake of raids in 2011 on the offices of foreign NGOs, many of which had operated without licenses under ousted President Hosni Mubarak but which the new authorities deemed were receiving funds illicitly.
The Cairo criminal court sentenced 27 defendants in absentia to five years. The Americans sentenced in absentia include the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
Other defendants who were handed five-year sentences in absentia include citizens from Norway, Serbia, Germany and Arab states. Five defendants who were present in the country, including one American and a German, were sentenced to two years behind bars and ordered to pay a fine of around $143. The remaining 11 defendants were each given one-year suspended sentences.
The court also ordered the permanent closure of the branches of the NGOs where the staffers worked.
These included U.S.-based NGOs Freedom House, the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute, as well as the German Konrad Adenauer Foundation. The defendants, who were charged with receiving illicit foreign funds and operating without a license, have said they will appeal against the sentences.
Crackdown led to crisis
The crackdown on foreign NGOs led to a crisis in relations between Egypt and Washington, which Cairo had tried to defuse by allowing some of the NGO activists, mainly foreigners, to leave the country.
Until then, Washington had hinted that trying the activists could jeopardize its more than $1 billion of annual aid to Egypt, much of it to the military. The verdict comes as Egypt debates a new law regulating NGOs that has been fiercely criticized by civil society groups.
President Mohamed Morsi, who referred the bill to the senate last week, pledged that he “does not aspire to control civil society,” in a departure from Mubarak’s strongman tactics. Morsi, once a political prisoner under Mubarak and leader of the formerly banned Muslim Brotherhood, has insisted that he must reform a corrupt inherited bureaucracy and instill transparency. His aides say that the NGO bill was drafted in that spirit.
But many NGOs, already wary of the Islamist president, say it is an attempt to assert control over the foreign funding of projects such as human rights advocacy. The draft law will create a steering committee, headed by the social affairs minister, which must approve requests for foreign funding. It will be able to turn down the requests from NGOs if it deems a project illegal. Foreign funding, for example, may not be used for political campaigning.
The government said the NGOs were operating illegally in Egypt and complained that after the anti-Mubarak revolt, the U.S. government had diverted $150 million from its Egypt aid budget to these NGOs, breaking bilateral agreements.