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19 Americans convicted for pro-democracy work in Egypt

CAIRO — The convictions Tuesday of 19 Americans who worked for pro-democracy groups highlight Egypt’s long-standing resistance to broadening freedoms in a country that has veered from secular autocratic rule to an increasingly restrictive Islamist-led government.

The criminal court case against the Americans on charges of operating illegally funded organizations strained relations between Washington and Cairo and hardened Egypt’s suspicions toward international civil society programs. The verdicts came as President Mohamed Morsi is seeking to further tighten regulations on pro-democracy groups.

Many of the American defendants, most of whom fled the country last year, were sentenced in absentia to five years in prison. The only American to remain in Cairo — Robert Becker — received a two-year jail term. It was not immediately clear whether he was free pending an appeal.

The case escalated into a political crisis between Washington and Cairo during the tense months after the 2011 uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak. Tuesday’s verdict further angered the U.S., which has urged Morsi to expand civil freedoms at a time when his government is clamping down on dissent.

“The United States is deeply concerned by the guilty verdicts and sentences ... in what was a politically motivated trial,” Secretary of State John F. Kerry said in a statement. “The decision to close these organizations’ offices and seize their assets contradicts the government of Egypt’s commitments to support the role of civil society as a fundamental actor in a democracy.”

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Egyptian authorities have historically regarded international pro-democracy workers as spies or pesky infiltrators. Most of the Americans sentenced Tuesday belonged to Freedom House, the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute, or NDI. The nongovernmental organizations had been offering educational programs ahead of Egypt’s elections when their offices were raided in late 2011.

The Americans, including Sam LaHood, son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, were among 43 defendants. Others charged were from Egypt, Serbia, Norway, Germany and several Arab states. Many of the Americans posted $330,000 bail each and left the country in early 2012 after Egypt temporarily lifted a travel ban amid pressure from Washington.

The verdicts surprised and infuriated members of Congress and human rights groups.

“This was a sham trial from the start,” said Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.). “If this decision stands, not a penny more of U.S. taxpayer money should go to the Muslim Brotherhood-led government in Cairo.”

Hafsa Halawa, an Egyptian NDI worker who was convicted, tweeted: “We are prisoners of a corrupt legal system.”

Judge Makram Awad on Tuesday also ordered the closing of the offices of the U.S.-based groups involved. The decision comes amid increasing criticism by activists of a proposed law by the Morsi government to further constrict nongovernmental organizations.

“This draft law dashes all hopes that independent groups could operate freely and independently after the revolution,” Human Rights Watch said in a recent statement. “Egypt’s proposed NGO law would allow the government free rein to cut off funding and halt activities of groups that it finds inconvenient.”

The trial against the Americans began in 2012, when the Egyptian military ruled the country after the fall of Mubarak. The groups were charged with receiving illicit foreign funding and operating without a license. The NDI and other organizations argued that they applied for licenses but were kept in a perpetual gray area by the state.

“It is a nonsensical case. The accusation of foreign funding is a ready and prepackaged mechanism by state authorities to force [their] control and subdue civil society,” said Ashraf El Sherif, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo. “The state’s authoritarian interference in civil society is moving in the same general direction as before. Nothing has changed.”

The legal drama, which tapped into growing anti-American sentiment, was regarded by government critics as a staged and highly publicized show by Egypt to deflect attention from months of economic and political turmoil. Congress responded by threatening to cut off more than $1.3 billion in U.S. military aid.

The case was a subplot to the troubling arc of the Egyptian revolution’s messy aftermath, winding through the courts amid military rule, an interim government and the political ascendancy of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood’s party. The outcome suggests that even as power in Egypt changed hands, the nation’s disdain for outside influences, especially after decades in which Mubarak was perceived as a U.S. proxy, remains potent.

After the verdict, Becker, who worked for NDI, tweeted: “waiting for appeal strategy.”

In an interview last year with The Times, Becker said he decided to remain in Cairo in solidarity with his Egyptian codefendants. A German employee of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation who remained in Egypt also was sentenced to two years in prison.

“Call it moral grounds or stubbornness,” said Becker. “I never contemplated leaving this country if [criminal] charges were hanging over the Egyptian staff working for me. I wasn’t interested in hiding behind the color of my passport.”

jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

Special correspondent Ingy Hassieb in Cairo and Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.


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