An Egyptian court on Tuesday convicted 43 nonprofit workers of illegally using foreign funds to foment unrest in the country. At least 16 Americans were convicted including the son of U.S. transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, but only one, Robert Becker, chose to remain in Egypt to face charges.
The trial began in early last year and resulted in significant diplomatic tension, including a warning from Washington that it could result in a loss of American aid. Twenty-seven of the 43 defendants received five-year terms, while another five received two years and 11 received 1 year. Becker, who has maintained his refusal to flee the country was to show of solidarity for his Egyptian colleagues, received a two-year sentence.
Judge Makram Awad read the verdict, which also ordered the Egyptian offices of U.S. non-profits where many of the defendants worked, including the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, Freedom House and a center for training journalists, be closed and their and assets seized.
The prosecution argued that the four U.S. groups and one German organization illegally received around $50 million in funds in the months that followed Mubarak’s ouster in February 2011 and were engaged in “illegal polling, training in political activism and other activity without the knowledge or the approval of authorities.”
Travel bans were placed on the suspects earlier during the investigation and trial, including Americans who took refuge in the U.S. embassy, but they were allowed to leave the country on bail of $330,000 each. All but Becker took the opportunity to leave the country, with the bail ultimately paid for by the U.S. Government through the federal funding of their non-profit employers.
The day before the verdict was announced, Becker posted a statement to his blog arguing his innocence, but noted appeals were likely regardless of the outcome:
If evidence matters in an Egyptian court, tomorrow’s verdict will be not guilty. The government witnesses for the prosecution never focused their testimony on the actual charges against us, instead using their 15-minutes of “fame” to complain about the United States.
On my specific charges of forming an illegal NGO, my lawyer did an excellent job of establishing that first, the NGO was in fact legal under Egyptian law, and second, I arrived in 2011, while the NGO was formed in 2005 (Closing argument threads here, here and here).
But this case has been political from the very beginning; so guilty is also real possibility, despite the lack of evidence. We put our faith in the judges and their independence from politics to look solely at the evidence and rule accordingly.
“Regardless of the verdict, we anticipate appeals,” Becker said. “If found not guilty, the prosecution will no doubt appeal and the case could linger for years. Obviously our lawyers will appeal should the ruling go against us.”
Secretary Kerry released a statement about the trial, calling it “politically-motivated” and saying he is “deeply concerned by the guilty verdicts and sentences.” The statement also argued that the decision to seize the assets of the non-profits “contradicts the Government of Egypt’s commitments to support the role of civil society as a fundamental actor in a democracy and contributor to development, especially at this critical stage in the Egyptian people’s democratic transition.”
At Foreign Policy, David Kenner has a very interesting behind the scenes look at Becker’s decision to stay in Egypt and how Egyptian employees of the National Democratic Institute viewed the group’s work to get American employees out of the country.