NGO workers could face 5 years in prison, Egyptian judges say

February 8, 2012

Egypt’s prime minister said Wednesday that the government would not drop a criminal probe into U.S.-funded pro-democracy organizations, and officials said the Egyptians and Americans charged in the case could face up to five years in prison.

The remarks by the investigative judges handling the case — the most detailed characterization of the government’s case against the pro-democracy workers to date — did not suggest that authorities had uncovered nefarious or subversive activities.

Rather, the judges, who in Egypt’s judicial system serve as the American equivalent of prosecutors, accused the NGO workers of failing to pay taxes, entering the country on tourist visas and training political parties even though the Egyptian government had refused to accredit their employers.

“The case is very big and includes hundreds of people, organizations and entities,” Judge Sameh Abu Zaid said Wednesday afternoon during a press conference at the Justice Ministry. He warned that more NGOs could be raided in coming days as the probe expands.

The case has angered U.S. officials and prompted U.S. lawmakers to threaten to cut off financial aid to Egypt. Zaid’s comments and Prime Minister Kamal el-Ganzouri’s remarks at a separate press conference appeared to suggest that despite an outcry in Washington and among civil society activists in Egypt, the military-led government in Cairo does not intend to water down or dismiss the case soon.

“The West turned against us because Egypt exercised its rights,” Ganzouri said, defending the investigation.

In outlining the evidence gathered to date, the judges mentioned several puzzling items, including “cash” and maps it said investigators had found in the Cairo office of the International Republican Institute (IRI) that bore scribbled notes in English.

Zaid said the groups were found to be “training political parties on the electoral process,” a description consistent with what nongovernmental organizations have said they’ve been doing for months.

Egyptian authorities charged 43 people in the probe, including 19 they identified as U.S. citizens. However, the State Department said Tuesday that it believes only 16 of the defendants are American. Fewer than half of those are believed to be in Egypt, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.

The defendants include the Egypt directors of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and IRI. The latter, Sam LaHood, is the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

Another defendant, Nancy Okail, an Egyptian citizen and the Egypt director of Washington-based Freedom House said Thursday that she has not received formal charging documents and does not know whether Egyptian authorities intend to physically detain those under investigation.

“It is very tense and very volatile,” she said in a phone interview, adding that she is eager to fight the charges.

“I would be happy to go in this case until the end, because I respect the rule of law and I think justice will prevail,” Okail said. “But I wish we knew that this is a legal case and not a political one. The indication so far is that it is political.”

Sherif Mansour, a Freedom House employee based in Washington who was also charged in the case, said he found the evidence laid out Wednesday laughable.

“My first impression is I’m very happy,” said Mansour, an Egyptian citizen. “I’m sure my lawyer is, too, seeing the ridiculousness of the evidence.”

Mansour, a senior program director, said he would gladly travel to Egypt to stand trial.

“This is about disenfranchising civil society and manipulating the relationship with the U.S.,” he said. “Egyptian civil society is our strongest hope to protect rights and freedoms in the years ahead.”

NDI and IRI have expressed concern about the investigations. Neither organization issued a statement about Wednesday’s press conference.

Special correspondent Ingy Hassieb contributed to this report.

Ernesto Londoño covers the Pentagon for the Washington Post.
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