Friends of Egyptian suspects react as they listen to the judge's verdict at a court room during a case against foreign non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Cairo June 4, 2013 (Photo: Reuters)
The jail terms imposed on 43 NGO workers in Egypt have continued to provoke international condemnation.
Both the European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton, and Commissioner Stefan Füle criticised the "negative signal" the verdict sends about civil society in Egypt.
In a joint statement on Wednesday, both EU representatives stressed the significant role played by independent groups during Egypt's transition to democracy and asserted the rights of civil society organisations to "be allowed to operate freely."
"The EU has been working actively with Egyptian civil society and has developed several highly successful projects which promote universal human rights," read the statement.
A court in Cairo on Tuesday sentenced 27 NGO workers in absentia to five-year jail sentences. Five defendants, who were in the country, including one American, were sentenced to two years behind bars and ordered to pay fines of LE1,000. The remaining eleven received one-year suspended sentences.
The court also ordered the closure of five foreign NGOs involved in the case and the seizure of their funds. These are the US-based Freedom House, the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the International Centre for Journalists (ICFJ), and Germany's Konrad Adenauer Foundation (KAS).
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said, "The action by the Egyptian justice is alarming. It weakens civil society as an important pillar of democracy in a new democratic Egypt."
The UK also expressed alarm over the convictions.
"The verdict signals an overly restrictive approach to how NGOs, including widely respected international NGOs, are able to carry out their work. We have raised our concerns with the Egyptian authorities," UK Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt said on Wednesday.
The controversial verdict comes as Egyptian lawmakers debate a new bill regulating NGOs which has been sharply censured by rights campaigners for being highly restrictive.
"The draft law that is being considered by the Shura Council still contains elements that could unnecessarily constrain the work of NGOs in Egypt," Burt said.
He reiterated calls for the Egyptian government to ensure the law is in line with international standards and obligations.
The EU also reiterated its commitment to ensure – in conjunction with all stakeholders – that Egypt adopts an NGO law which abides by international standards of freedom of association and human rights.
The bill was submitted by President Mohamed Morsi after an earlier draft by the Muslim Brotherhood was condemned as more repressive than its Mubarak-era predecessor.
"The Muslim Brotherhood lays the foundations for a new police state by exceeding Mubarak-era mechanisms to suppress civil society," said a statement signed by 40 NGOs last week, in reference to the Islamist group which propelled President Mohamed Morsi to power.
President Morsi, however, has said he does not seek to control civil society. A presidential aide also stated that the government aims to empower independent groups towards greater freedom and transparency and less bureaucracy.
But critics say the draft law will, in effect, allow the government full discretion to object to both foreign and domestic funding, withhold licenses and broadly interfere in the internal governance of independent groups.