A prominent lawyer has questioned the way a decision was made to lift a travel ban imposed on foreign nongovernmental organisation (NGO) workers and their departure from Egypt.
On 6 February, a group of 13 foreign NGO workers, including US citizens, left Egypt on a US plane. This came after an unnamed Egyptian judge made the rush decision to lift a travel ban placed on the them after they were accused of working in Egypt and raising US funds without appropriate government authorisation.
“This is suspicious, the public should be informed about the truth because this is not a regular case,” Bahaa El-Din Abou Shoka, a prominent lawyer told Ahram Online.
Investigations into foreign-funded civil society groups began in mid-2011. The situation quickly escalated in late December when judicial authorities raided and temporarily closed as many as 17 NGO offices in Cairo.
Among the groups under investigation are the US-government funded National Democratic Institute (NDI) – founded by former secretary of state Madeleine Albright – and the International Republican Institute (IRI) whose chairman is Republican Senator John McCain.
According to Abou Shoka, there is nothing illegal about lifting a travel ban on citizens facing trial. “The main questions here are: who lifted the ban and for what reason was the ban lifted?” Abou Shoka told Ahram Online.
The judges in charge of the case abruptly recused themselves the day before the decision to lift the travel ban. This meant Egypt’s Court of Appeal Judge Abdel-Moez Ibrahim did not have time to officially reassign the case to another judge. The identity of the judge who lifted the travel ban remains unknown.
The issue of bail raises further questions. The US government, reportedly, paid $330,000 to the Egyptian authorities in bail money for each foreign national who left the country.
“Usually bail is paid to ensure the defendant returns for the next hearing," explained Abou Shoka.
The question, he added, was whether the Egyptian judiciary requested the bail money as payment for the defendents' release or to ensure their return once the trial resumes.
The reasons the three judges stepped down from the case also remain ambiguous.
Head of the District Court, Mahmoud Shokri stepped down two days after the first hearing of the trial. Sources told Al-Ahram newspaper that he made the decision after receiving a phone call that left him feeling "uncomfortable."
However, Judge Ibrahim told state television on Thursday that he asked Judge Shokri to remove himself from the case because Shokri's son works with a US-based institution that has connections to the US Embassy. Shokri denies being forced to recuse himself.
Judge Ashraf Ashmawy, who was the prosecutor in the trial, withdrew from the case after what he described as "unacceptable interference" in the Egyptian judicial system. He has promised to inform Justice Minister Mohamed Manei of his reasons for withdrawing.