Egypt NGO trial defendants optimistic about Tuesday verdict

Bel Trew , Monday 3 Jun 2013

After year-long trial, fate of 43 NGO employees charged with operating in Egypt without proper legal status will finally be decided

NGO trial
NGO employees in the dock during their trial in Cairo (Photo: Reuters)

The fate of 43 NGO employees accused of operating in Egypt without proper legal status will be decided on Tuesday after a year-long trial that had sparked a political dogfight between Cairo and Washington.

The defendants, including 13 Egyptians employed by five international NGOs, face five or more years in jail for allegedly working for unregistered, foreign-funded organisations.

The case began in late 2011 under military rule, when then-minister of international cooperation Fayza Abul-Naga, apparently angered by a USAID decision to bypass the ministries and pay $65 million to civil societies in Egypt, ordered a police raid on 17 NGO offices. 

By February 2012, the accused – who included the son of a US cabinet member – found they were on trial after their names were broadcast in an unorthodox televised press conference. 

The case sparked international outrage, with Washington threatening to remove economic aid to Egypt. All but one of the international defendants swiftly fled the country. 

However, one year on, with Egypt now under a new administration, those in the dock say that although the origins of the case were largely political, they are confident of a positive verdict.

"We are expecting an acquittal for all the defendants, including the ones that are abroad," said Sarwat Abdel-Shahid, lawyer for the National Democratic Institute (NDI), one of the US NGOs whose employees are on trial.

"The prosecution have no case: the trial started because of conflicts between the Egyptian and US government, and has nothing to do with the individual defendants and the organisations themselves," he added.

In a worst-case scenario, Abdel-Shahid explained, employees will be given a five-year jail sentence, while those charged with managing the organisations will receive seven years. 

However, Abdel-Shahid is confident that the harshest punishment meted out on Tuesday will be an acquittal for the Egyptians who stayed to face trial and prison sentences in absentia for the international defendants who fled.

Abdel-Shahid explained that the defence lawyers' cases chiefly rely on Article 5 of the current law governing civil society, which states that if you apply to register an NGO and receive no objection from the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Social Solidarity within 60 days, you are licensed.

All the organisations involved in the trial, some of which had been allowed to work in Egypt undisturbed since 2005, had filed their applications. At the time of the raids and police investigations, organisations like the NDI were even given government clearance to monitor the elections.

The illegal funding charge will also not stick, Abdel-Shahid claims, as the employees are on trial as individuals and are therefore not liable for the mistakes of their organisations.

Since the trial began, there has also been important legal precedent that might help the case, explains one of the Egyptian defendants on trial, NDI programme assistant Hafsa Halawa.

In March of this year, unregistered Egyptian NGO 'Bareeq' won its case.

"The Supreme Administrative Court ruled that they were legal according to Article 6's 60-day rule, as the ministry of social solidarity never refused their application," Halawa, a lawyer, explains.

Nevertheless, as hopeful as the defendants and lawyers are, the latest draft of the NGO law submitted by the presidency to parliament's upper house last week is a worrying litmus test of the government's attitude towards civil society in Egypt.

"The political rhetoric, when you look at the way the law is drafted, says that foreign funding has no place in Egypt, which is the prosecution's driving force behind our trial," asserted Halawa, who has discussed the draft legislation along with civil society groups in the Shura Council.

Halawa also fears that her previous employers, NDI, would be refused registration under the new draft legislation, which the Egyptian presidency has repeatedly said would mark the beginning of a better era for civil society in Egypt.

"The language of the registration procedure bans anyone affiliated to or promoting a political party," she said. "They could've banned the NDI and the International Republican Institute [whose employees are also on trial] for promoting a republican and democrat agenda."

The last year has taken its toll on the defendants left behind in Egypt.

Blacklisted, they talk about the social stigma they have faced and the troubles they have had finding work. Even employees of the five NGOs not on trial have found it difficult to secure jobs.

"One of our staff members who wasn't charged couldn't get a job," explained Robert Becker, the only American NGO employee on trial not to flee the country. "She went for a couple of bank jobs, but when they saw 'NDI' on her CV they said no."

The exodus of the foreigners, who were mostly senior members of staff, had a significant impact on Becker, who decided to stay in solidarity with his Egyptian colleagues.

Even though he was sacked by the NDI days after the first court hearing for refusing to leave, he is still being charged as a manager not an employee, which carries a heftier jail sentence, as he is the most senior member of staff left in the country. 

The repercussions of the trial have been huge: with the clampdown on foreign funding as a result of the hearings, many organisations have had to close or have been forced to let staff go. 

If Tuesday sees a guilty verdict, the precedent could cripple Egyptian civil society indefinitely. 

After one year on trial, the defendants say they are simply anxious to know the outcome.

"Collectively," Becker concludes, "we're ready for it to be over."

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