CAIRO — An Egyptian court moved forward Sunday with judicial proceedings that target four U.S. pro-democracy groups, but none of the American defendants attended the first day of the trial.
The highly charged Egyptian investigation, which began last summer, has angered U.S. officials, prompting some to threaten to cut Egypt’s $1.55 billion annual aid package, most of which goes to the military.
U.S. officials have been engaged in “intense discussions” with the Egyptian government about the crackdown on the non-governmental organizations and their employees, a senior official traveling with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in Morocco told reporters on Sunday. Clinton brought up the cases at least twice in recent days to Egypt’s foreign minister Mohammed Amr, at meetings in the United Kingdom and in Tunisia, said the senior official, who was not authorized to speak on the record.
Clinton told reporters in Morocco that it’s “a fluid situation, and there are lots of moving parts.”
Also Sunday, Egypt’s military rulers asked parliament to begin work March 3 to choose a 100-member body to write the constitution. Many political activists here worry that by proceeding with drafting a constitution before presidential elections, expected in May, and the transfer of power to civilian rule, Egypt’s top brass will use their position to enshrine their privileges in the nation’s constitution and remove themselves from civilian oversight.
The U.S. groups targeted in the crackdown on foreign and domestic civil society groups are the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, the International Center for Journalists and Freedom House, which all receive funding from the U.S. government. Since their offices were raided Dec. 29, U.S. officials have received repeated assurances from Egypt’s military leaders, who now run the country, that the issue will be resolved, but the case has only escalated.
In a chaotic Cairo courtroom on Sunday, prosecutors read out the names of the 43 defendants and listed the charges against them, which included receiving illegal foreign funds, operating illegally in Egypt and doing political work. Later Sunday, the judge adjourned the hearing until April 26, giving defense attorneys time to become familiar with the case.
At least 16 of the named defendants are American, and seven of them remain in Egypt, barred by the government from leaving the country. They include IRI’s Egypt director Sam LaHood, the son of U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, who, along with other IRI employees, has taken refuge in the U.S. Embassy.
No foreign defendants appeared in the courtroom Sunday. All of the Egyptian defendants who attended the proceeding were kept in a prosecution cage, as is typical here, and pleaded not guilty to charges. They included the director of Freedom House in Egypt, Nancy Okail.
An official from NDI said the group’s American staffers didn’t appear in court because they were not formally summoned. Most of the 13 Egyptians who appeared Sunday, including local NDI and IRI staff members, said they had not been officially summoned.
“These organizations are accused of espionage and going against the law. Most of them are in contact with the CIA,” prosecution lawyer Khaled Suleiman told a courtroom packed with journalists, lawyers, and friends and colleagues of the accused. “These organizations gathered information and reports on Egypt and sent them to the U.S. State Department.”
While the NGOs are technically in violation of Egyptian law, the American organizations have applied to get permission to work and have been transparent with the government, the groups say. They also deny accusations of working to destabilize Egypt.
“It’s a witch hunt,” said Yehia Ghanem of the International Center for Journalists after leaving the prosecution cage. “We opened an office as a prerequisite to get registered here.”
The case has become politicized, with Faiza Abou el-Naga, the minister of planning and international cooperation and a holdover from the government of former president Hosni Mubarak, leading the charge against the groups. She accuses them of sowing unrest in Egypt and working to undermine the country.
Human rights activists in Egypt see the case as an attack on democracy and an attempt to criminalize NGO work. But many Egyptians believe the government accusations and now see the defendants as spies and agents of unrest.
An attorney representing third parties demanded punitive damages from the defendants on Sunday for the damage they say the groups have done to Egypt.
State media have published parts of leaked court documents accusing the groups of working to implement a U.S.-Israeli plot and working with the CIA. The groups deny all the accusations.
Staff writer William Wan in Washington contributed to this report.