Egyptian activists react with fury to criminal trial for NGO workers

Civil society groups say trial of 43 NGO workers – including 19 Americans – is politically motivated

Activists and civil society groups in Egypt have reacted with fury to the announcement that 43 NGO workers – including 19 American citizens – will face a criminal trial in what critics of the government say is a politically motivated investigation into the foreign funding of pro-democracy groups.

Judge Ashraf al-Ashmawy confirmed on Monday the case had been referred to the Cairo criminal court, where the NGO workers will face charges of "accepting funds and benefits from an international organisation" to pursue an activity "prohibited by law".

They are also accused of carrying out "political training programmes", supporting election campaigns and illegally financing individuals and groups, the judge said in a statement.

Those involved waited in trepidation for further details. "It's inexplicable," said Julie Hughes, country director of the National Democratic Institute (NDI). "We don't even know what the charges are."

"I'm trying to stay optimistic but I'd be lying if I said this wasn't stressful on me, the organisation, our families. But I'm proud of the individuals working here. We'll hang in there."

Hughes and 18 other Americans – including Sam LaHood, country director of the International Republican Institute and son of the US transport secretary – have been banned from leaving Egypt in relation to the case, which many see as a thinly veiled attack on pro-democracy and human rights organisations.

"This is the continuation of the Mubarak-era attacks on civil society groups and it's worse because it's being conducted by Mubarak-era minister [of planning and international co-operation] Fayza Abul Naga," said Gamal Eid, the head of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information.

Eid also placed some of the blame on the US ambassador to Egypt, Ann Patterson, for announcing that the US government was funding groups in Egypt yet refusing to say which groups were the recipients. Patterson's comments left all civil society groups open to misrepresentation as recipients of US government aid, even though none of the groups under investigation were, Eid said. "We have misgivings over US government aid and we don't take it," he said.

The case against the NGO workers focuses on funding from abroad for activities that, under a 2003 law, require these groups to be registered with the ministry of insurance and social solidarity.

Those in the field point out there is much delay and procrastination by the relevant authorities when groups try to register their activities. "You submit your papers, then they keep asking for more and you don't get anywhere, and in the end you are not registered," said Sherif Azer, deputy head of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights.

NDI submitted a request in 2005 that did not meet with much interest by the authorities and was asked to resubmit its papers by the ministry of foreign affairs last month, Hughes said. "We were given verbal indications that our programmes were well within Egyptian law," she said.

Hughes added "there's been a history of scepticism by the previous regime" of groups promoting democracy but that the NDI had always kept authorities informed of its activities, including the notorious state security apparatus that often intervened in civil society work. The NDI had also recently been accredited by the high elections committee to observe the parliamentary elections, which began in November and have not yet ended.

Civil society groups, especially those that focus on human rights and promoting democracy, have been regularly accused of involvement in foreign plots to weaken Egypt and the allegations are often revived after clashes between protesters and security forces.


Abdel-Rahman Hussein in Cairo

The GuardianTramp

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