CAIRO — Civil society workers for U.S. and other nonprofit groups that are accused of illegally receiving foreign funds entered pleas of not guilty Sunday, the first day of a trial that threatens to unravel three decades of close Egyptian-American relations.
None of the 16 American defendants showed up to court.
Of the 43 defendants, only 14 Egyptian nongovernmental organization — NGO — workers were present inside the cage as prosecutors read charges that accused them of circumventing Egyptian law to receive more than $20 million in funding from Washington to set up offices and promote a U.S.-friendly agenda.
The foreign and Egyptian nonprofit workers, including the son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, are accused of receiving illegal funds from abroad, carrying out political activities unrelated to their civil society work and failing to obtain the necessary operating licenses. The defendants include Germans, Palestinians, Norwegians and Serbs.
The case has outraged Washington lawmakers, who've vowed to cut Egypt's annual $1.3 billion in military aid in retaliation. Rumors abounded of a behind-the-scenes deal to resolve the matter without either side losing face.
On Sunday, however, prosecutors charged ahead with their case, accusing the workers of fomenting the unrest that's roiled Egypt for a year.
"These defendants agreed to work with the mentioned NGOs on these crimes in exchange for a reward in the form of salaries, amounting to an infringement on Egypt's sovereignty," prosecutor Abdallah Yassin told the court.
Prosecutors added that the funds received by the NGOs had doubled after January 2011 — the beginning of the uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak — and that the timing cast doubts on their activities. The government has long smeared American and other Western civil society groups as agents of unrest seeking a U.S. puppet state in Egypt, suggesting that they'd helped to foment the rebellion.
Civil society activists called the trial a farce whose aim is to blunt any opposition to the ruling Supreme Council of Armed Forces and score the generals some points with a public that's grown weary of the transitional period's instability and lack of security. The sympathizers argued that the state should have helped the NGOs to correct their legal standing — they'd long applied and been denied formal recognition — instead of putting them to trial.
"There's no strong evidence against the accused. These organizations have letters from the Ministry of Finance (allowing them) to monitor the elections. They'll be acquitted," said lawyer Abdul Hakim El Kordy, who's on the defense team for the International Republican Institute, whose Egypt program was led by Sam LaHood, the Cabinet secretary's son.
At the Cairo Criminal Court on the outskirts of the capital, Judge Mahmoud Mohamed Shoukry presided over a courtroom crammed with lawyers, journalists and relatives of the defendants. The opening session quickly turned chaotic, with shouting and shoving, forcing the court to go into recess just two minutes after convening. The judge walked out, leaving the court clerk to demand order from the unruly crowd. The session resumed minutes later.
Sunday's hearing was mostly procedural. In a step that could buy time for more diplomatic solutions or for the NGOs to complete the proper registration processes, Shoukry adjourned the case until April 26 in order to organize interpreters for non-Arabic speaking defendants and to allow time for the defense to study some 2,000 documents related to the case and translate them into English. Chants of "Down with military rule!" erupted at the end of the session.
Attorney Tawhid Ramzy, also representing the International Republican Institute, told reporters that defense lawyers' rights were "completely disregarded" during the investigative phase a few months ago, leaving no time for them to review the evidence or build a defense for their clients.
"These NGO workers are paying the price for exerting efforts to bring awareness to Egyptians," Ramzy said. "One of the charges they face is giving political parties training to get out the vote. How does the state see this as a crime?"
The Americans have little support inside Egypt, where many people view civil society groups as cover for secret agendas to infringe upon Egypt's sovereignty and to protect U.S. interests.
The government even found unlikely supporters in the radical followers of Omar Abdul Rahman, the Egyptian so-called "blind sheikh" who's accused of plotting the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993. Inside the courtroom, his supporters shouted for the judge to try and imprison the Americans "just like the U.S. did" to Abdul Rahman, who's being held in the United States on terrorism charges.
Outside the venue, dozens of the cleric's supporters gathered in support of the trial.
"We want the Egyptian government to also consider our political prisoners in the U.S. as part of this deal," said Ahmed Abdallah, who seeks Abdul Rahman's release.
President Barack Obama has urged Egypt to drop the investigation. Senior officials such as the Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona have flown to Cairo in recent weeks for private talks on the matter with the ruling generals.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is reported to have discussed the issue with Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Amr on at least two different occasions.
Walid Kazziha, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo, said the tenor of the flap had changed markedly since the increased U.S. pressure and visits from high-level emissaries.
"Both sides have finally come to the conclusion that they will leave it to the court to decide. I imagine that there were some assurances given to the American side that the court would deal with it as an issue of minor violations and the defendants would be given light sentences or a fine," Kazziha said. "Both sides have come to the conclusion that neither of them would benefit much from making much of it."
Even if the Americans are eventually acquitted and permitted to leave the country, however, Egyptian defendants will face a tougher time after the public smear on their work and reputations.
Hafsa Halawa, who works for the Washington-based National Democratic Institute, declined to comment as she left the first day of trial. Just 30 minutes later, she posted this message on her Twitter account: "Make no mistake ... standing in that cage was the lowest point of my life. The whole time I was there all I could think of was my family outside. For my dad to stand in that courtroom and see me ... that breaks my heart."
(Al Desoukie is a McClatchy special correspondent)
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