Cairo's NGO Trials: Will Egypt Throw American Democracy Advocates into Jail?

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Amr Nabil / AP

Egyptian investigative judges Sameh Abu Zeid, right, and Ashraf el-Ashmawi, who are investigating the case of foreign funding of NGOs, talk during a press conference at the Ministry of Justice in Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2012.

Sixteen Americans are among 43 NGOs workers set to go on trial in Cairo on Sunday, in a case that has sent U.S-Egyptian relations plummeting to their most serious low in decades. The civil society workers, which include both foreign and local employees of prominent Washington-based democracy promotion groups Freedom House, the International Republican Institute (IRI), and the National Democratic Institute (NDI), as well as the International Center for Journalists, and the German Adenauer Foundation are charged with operating without a license and receiving and distributing millions of dollars worth of foreign funding to Egyptian political and civil society groups.

The crackdown, which formally began in December with raids by Egyptian security forces on 17 NGO offices across the country, has sparked outrage in Washington. The U.S. administration has threatened to slash the annual $1.3 billion aid package that it hands to Egypt's military, which took over the country last year after a popular uprising ended the 30-year reign of President Hosni Mubarak. U.S. officials and NGO employees say the case, launched by the Minister of International Cooperation and Planning Fayza Aboul Nega, a Mubarak-era stalwart, is politically motivated because the democracy groups have operated in Egypt for years and have applied repeatedly for licenses. Still, a decision by the U.S. Congress late last year to make aid conditional — effectively placing guarantees on the country's progress toward a democracy — angered the generals and may have provoked a stand-off over the NGO issue.

If convicted, the defendants could face sentencing of heavy fines and up to five years in prison. And while the formal charges don't directly accuse the civil society workers of committing espionage, they are charged with preparing "reports of their activities" and sending those reports to their headquarters abroad, according to a list of the official charges obtained by TIME. Earlier this month, Egyptian state media declared that the groups had been involved in a plot to undermine the country's stability and prosperity. The state press quoted testimony by Fayza Aboul Nega, in which she alleged that the U.S. government is actively working through the NGOs to sow unrest. Hers is the longest witness testimony in the prosecution's files, according to a source close to the case. Investigating judges also cited evidence found in the NGO offices that included maps of Egypt divided into four sections (common regional designations on other maps), which Egyptian officials have said indicates U.S. government plans to divide up Egypt.

It's unclear just how many of the defendants will show up to court on Sunday. At least 15 are currently outside the country and are listed on documents filed by the prosecution as "fugitives." Three of the six Americans who have remained in the country with travel bans have taken refuge in the U.S. Embassy. Those include the head of IRI in Egypt, Sam LaHood, who is the son of Obama's Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

Negad El-Borai, a lawyer representing some of the Americans in the case, told the Agence France Presse on Friday that he didn't expect his clients to show up to the first session of the trial. Typically when a defendant is absent to make his or her defense in an Egyptian court, the judge often opts for the maximum sentencing. However, a conviction in absentia does not necessarily result in immediate fulfillment of the sentence if the convicted returns to the country. "We've been so uninformed about everything since the beginning of the case," Nancy Okail, the Egypt Director of Freedom House and one of the defendants told TIME on Saturday. The Egyptian national said that all of the defendants from her organization would attend the first hearing. "But we don't know if we're going to be sitting in the court or sitting in the cage. Both are possible," she said, referring to the cage that defendants in Egyptian criminal trials are typically made to sit in throughout the hearings. "We also don't know if after the proceedings we'll be detained or free to go home. It's unlikely that we'll be detained because there's already a travel ban and we've shown to be cooperative," she added. "Other than that, I'm not sure." She said it's even possible that lawyers could bring new charges — thereby opening new cases — against the defendants on Sunday; something that's possible in an environment of rising xenophobia and anger, stoked by state media, over the crisis.

Several high-ranking Cairo judges have told TIME that investigation and prosecution decisions in Egypt's corrupt justice system sometimes have little to do with whether a law has been broken; they allege that verdicts generally have everything to do with politics and who you know. And trials — particularly in highly politicized cases — are notoriously slow. There is no telling how long this one will last. The trial for ex-President Hosni Mubarak and former Interior Minister on charges related to the killing of protesters during last year's uprising have dragged on since August, with a verdict not expected until next June, even though Mubarak's defense delivered its closing arguments earlier this week. For the NGO workers, the start to the trial is expected to be entirely procedural, but the direction from there is anyone's guess. "We will prove that we're there and they register our presence, and they'll determine the date for the first [hearing]," says Okail. "I'm sure there will be a long waiting time before the first [hearing]. Everything is possible."

Jail time for the Americans would almost certainly push the U.S. administration to cut off Egypt's military aid. But analysts say the crisis has already escalated to such an extent — fueled in large part by state media — that Egypt's rulers would face a public opinion backlash if they back down now. One face-saving option may involve a guilty verdict with a "suspended" sentence — something that would enable the government to appear strong in its conviction while avoiding a serious diplomatic disaster. "On a legal basis we have a very strong position — our papers are very clean, very clear," says Okail. "But we don't know how far this could go."