An Egyptian court on Tuesday sentenced 43 democracy promotion workers, including 16 Americans and a German, to as many as five years in prison for working for unlicensed civil-society organizations in an internationally watched case that renewed fears of a growing crackdown on democracy-promotion efforts here.
Among those convicted was Sam LaHood, the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. He received a five-year sentence in absentia for his work with the International Republican Institute, which is funded by Congress. LaHood, along with 14 other Americans, fled Egypt in March 2012, shortly after the charges came down.
Only one American, Robert Becker, who worked for the National Democratic Institute, which also is funded by Congress, remained in Egypt throughout the trial in a show of solidarity with the Egyptians who were charged. He was sentenced to two years in prison with hard labor and a $142 fine. He left the country for Rome within hours of the verdict.
"My job here is done. I wanted to be a buffer between my Egyptian colleagues and the government,” Becker said. "I will live in exile like many prominent Egyptians who have been falsely incriminated by the judicial system."
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The role of groups that promoted democratic principles, often referred to as nongovernmental organizations, has been controversial for years in Egypt and was the subject of numerous disputes between the United States and the government of now-deposed President Hosni Mubarak. The ruling by Judge Makram Awad renewed fears that post-Mubarak Egypt has become a xenophobic state that doesn’t welcome international groups who teach democratic practices, monitor elections and seek to enforce human rights across the country.
Becker called the decision a sign of a “pariah state.”
“I was convicted for teaching democracy,” Becker said after learning of the ruling. “It’s a bad day for democracy here. A very bad day.”
Awad ruled that all the money and property confiscated from the organizations when their offices were raided more than a year ago would remain with the government and that the groups involved no longer could operate in Egypt. The judge ordered the Egyptian government to ask Interpol, the international police agency, to add those who were convicted to an international watch list.
The ruling was condemned around the world. In a statement, Germany’s foreign minister said he was outraged. “The action of the Egyptian judiciary is worrying. It weakens the civil society, which is an important pillar of democracy in a new democratic Egypt,” Guido Westerwelle said.
In Washington, Secretary of State John Kerry said the ruling “runs contrary to the universal principle of freedom of association and is incompatible with the transition to democracy.”
Officials of the groups whose members were convicted called the ruling an assault on the goals of the 2011 uprising that led to Mubarak’s ouster.
“This whole case was a disgrace from the very beginning, and the verdict makes a mockery of the Egyptian judicial process,” said David J. Kramer, the president of Freedom House, a U.S. group that promotes a variety of human rights. It had six employees and one former staffer among the defendants. “It is motivated purely by corrupt and anti-democratic behavior and a determination to shut down civil society. “
He added, “None of those indicted did anything wrong. They were simply working with Egyptians to help them realize their dream of a free Egypt, and instead have been made scapegoats for a government and judiciary who have betrayed the aspirations of the Jan. 26, 2011, revolution.”
The International Republican Institute, which is nominally nonpartisan but draws most of its board members from the Republican Party, said the ruling would have a chilling effect and that taken with other recent developments, it “raises serious question about Egypt’s commitment to the democratic transition that so many people demanded when they took to the streets in early 2011.”
The National Democratic Institute draws its leadership largely from the Democratic Party.
In his ruling, Awad, who was sitting behind so many microphones television viewers could barely see his face, offered no explanation for the sentences. If there was a pattern in the ruling, it was that those who fled the country, such as LaHood, were sentenced to five years in prison. Lower-level Egyptian employees were sentenced to one-year suspended sentences. Those with midlevel roles in the groups, including Becker, received two-year sentences.
On the advice of their counsel, the defendants who remained in the country didn’t attend the announcement of the verdict. Many fled the country before the ruling. Becker watched from a cafe near his Cairo home before fleeing to Rome.
Though Twitter, Becker learned that lawyers entered the courtroom at 11:30 a.m., 90 minutes after the session was scheduled to start. Court employees placed new cushions under the judge’s chair before he walked in. Becker watched the verdict on TV and followed the translation of the judge’s findings on Twitter, his hands shaking slightly as he learned his fate.
Sarwat Abdel Shahid, a lawyer for the National Democratic Institute, told the newspaper Al Ahram that the verdict discriminated against foreigners and was aimed at pleasing the public rather than adhering to the law. He said all the defendants planned to appeal.
The case was immersed in politics from the beginning. Egyptian security forces raided the offices of several groups in the fall of 2011 – including those of the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, Freedom House, the International Center for Journalists and the German-based Konrad Adenauer Foundation – a time of heightened tensions between the international community and the remnants of Mubarak’s regime still in office.
The Egyptian government charged the groups with violating the country’s laws on private civil society organizations, including failure to register with the government and receiving illegal funds.
Public sentiment largely opposes foreign-funded civil society groups here, which Egyptians see as disruptive. Moreover, the government of President Mohammed Morsi moved aggressively in court to charge its opponents with crimes under Mubarak-era laws.
Last week, the Morsi government issued a revamped law governing the operations of civil society groups that some call more restrictive than the current law. The new law would require such groups to report all their funding, hire no less than 25 percent Egyptians and pay thousands to register. In announcing the new law, Morsi called it “a new phase of freedom in civil society work.”
McClatchy special correspondent Mohamed Fadel Fahmy contributed to this report.
UPDATE: The story was corrected to correct the quote from the German foreign minister from “The actions of the Egyptian judiciary are worrying” to “The action of the Egyptian judiciary is worrying”