Thursday, March 01, 2012

NGO workers under criminal investigation in Egypt leave country after bail is paid

By Leila Fadel and William Wan, Updated: Thursday, March 1, 2:16 PM
The Washington Post

CAIRO — The foreign nationals under criminal investigation here for their pro-democracy activities, including several Americans, arrived in Cyprus on a chartered flight from Cairo on Thursday night in what could be the end of a months-long diplomatic drama between Cairo and Washington.

A senior Egyptian judge said earlier that a travel ban imposed on the seven Americans and other foreign employees of nongovernment organizations implicated in the case had been lifted after the payment of bail, the state-run newspaper Ahram reported on its Web site.

Only six of the seven Americans charged were on the flight Thursday, according to an NGO official familiar with the case, who said that Robert Becker of the National Democratic Institute chose not to get on the plane, although he is free to leave.

Egypt had barred the Americans and at least two European citizens from leaving after authorities raided the Cairo offices of several foreign-funded NGOs in December. Egyptian authorities accused the groups of operating illegally, sowing unrest and working to carry out a U.S. plot to destroy Egypt.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Thursday that the United States is pleased Egypt decided to lift the travel ban, but she noted that their departure doesn’t resolve the legal cases or the broader problem of Egypt’s crackdown on NGOs.

“We remain deeply concerned about the prosecution of NGOS in Egypt and the ultimate outcome of the legal process,” she said.

A new trial date is expected to be set on Saturday, according to a senior judge quoted in Ahram.

In addition to the Americans, those on the plane Thursday included Norwegian, Serbian, Palestianian and German NGO workers who until their departure had been staying in their embassies. Three American employees of the International Republican Institute (IRI), including Sam LaHood, the son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, had been taking refuge in the U.S. Embassy.

IRI issued a statement Thursday welcoming the decision to lift the travel ban, saying it was “hopeful that the charges against its expatriate and local Egyptian staff will be dismissed.”

The organization noted, however, that in addition to the Americans and the Europeans, there are several Egyptians who worked for the U.S. and foreign NGOs and are still facing charges. Fourteen Egyptians are being prosecuted, according to the State Middle East News Agency.

“IRI views the decision as a positive development but remains very concerned about the situation and our Egyptian employees along with the continuing investigations of Egyptian civil society groups and the impact it will have on Egypt’s ability to move forward with the democratic transition that so many Egyptians have sought,” its statement said.

Charles Dunne, the Middle East director for Freedom House, which is contesting criminal charges against four of its Egyptian workers, said Thursday’s development was welcome but incomplete.

“If seven Americans do get out, that’s terrific, but we also hope it’s just the start of something more that happens,” he said. “And even beyond that, this defuses the immediate possibility of defunding on the Hill, but there’s still a lot unresolved. You have 400 Egyptian organizations caught up in this too, they have not yet been charged, but that certainly could be coming. What happens to the work of civil society as a whole in Egypt?”

Also in question is whether any of the 43 NGO workers facing charges, including at least 16 Americans, can ever return to Egypt. Dunne, who frequently works in Egypt but currently lives and works in the Washington region, was charged in absentia and labeled a fugitive.

“It’s not clear if and when any of us can return,” he said.

The trial began Sunday, but none of the foreign NGO workers charged attended the hearing. On Tuesday, the three judges overseeing the case withdrew abruptly without explanation, and on Wednesday, Egyptian officials reportedly agreed to lift the travel ban after intense negotiations with U.S. officials.

Nuland said Thursday that the State Department had sent legal experts to Egypt in recent weeks to work with the judiciary there to find a solution to the case, adding that at the request of the individuals’ attorneys, the judiciary agreed to waive the travel ban if bail was posted.

“None of these people who have departed were in custody, none were subject to arrest warrant,” she said, adding that the legal case remains in place and that whether those charged return “will be an issue each one of them will have to make a decision about.”

Bail for the defendants was set at 2 million Egyptian pounds (about $332,000) each, according to judicial officials and defense lawyers involved in the case. Nuland declined to confirm the amount paid for the Americans and said the NGOs wrote the checks themselves and that the U.S. government did not contribute. She acknowledged, though, that in general the government supplies the NGOs with much of their funding.

Many of the Egyptian NGO workers under investigation said Thursday that they want the court proceedings to continue and to be acquitted of all charges. Nancy Okail, the Egypt director for D.C.-based Freedom House, said that the political nature of the case has already compromised the independence of Egypt’s judicial system, which had been seen publicly as relatively independent.

While she is happy that the Americans and foreigners involved in the case have been allowed to leave, she said, she predicted a backlash from Egyptians who see the development as the executive interfering in the judiciary and caving to American pressure.

“Taking a political case to court is actually insulting the Egyptian judiciary,” Okail said, accusing Fayza Abou el-Naga, the minister of planning and international cooperation, of using the courts for political ends. “The biggest loser here is the judicial system, and it’s shaken to the core.”

“The Egyptian judiciary looks pathetic and weak, and this is a slap in the face to every judge who called for independence,” she said.

Correspondent Ernesto Londoño in Cairo and staff writer William Wan in Washington contributed to this report.

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