Originally published in The Independent, 4 June 2013
The American government publicly upbraided their Egyptian counterparts today after a court delivered jail sentences to 43 non-profit workers arrested during a high profile crackdown on rights and democracy groups.
Following two and half years in which the cornerstone Cairo-Washington alliance has been sorely tested, the verdict – which included jail sentences for 16 Americans – threatens to further erode confidence in a country which President Barack Obama last year said was no longer an ally of the US.
In a statement, US Secretary of State John Kerry lashed out at the decision, saying it was “incompatible with the transition to democracy”. He added that the trial had been “politically-motivated” and that the proceedings undermined the Egyptian government’s commitment to supporting civil society.
Those convicted included the son of US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
There was also stinging criticism from the German foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, who said his country had been “outraged” by the verdict. A prominent German non-profit organisation was among those targeted during the Egyptian government’s crackdown.
“The actions of the Egyptian judiciary are troubling,” he said. “They weaken civil society, which is an important pillar of democracy in the new democratic Egypt.”
The campaign against NGOs in Egypt began several months after the January 2011 revolt, when the country was still being ruled by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf).
Security squads raided the offices of 10 groups and arrested dozens of workers, among them Americans, Europeans, Egyptians and other Arab nationals.
During the subsequent trial, prosecutors alleged that some of the groups – including the high profile Freedom House, International Republican Institute, and National Democratic Institute – had received up to $50 million in illegal funds.
The verdict, delivered by judge Makram Awad, passed down five year sentences in absentia to 15 US citizens who fled the country last year. One American who remained in Egypt was sentenced to two years in prison.
Also on trial were eight defendants of Serbian, Jordanian, Lebanese, and other nationalities.
The verdict came as the Egyptian government, led by Islamist Mohamed Morsi, continued to face a torrent of criticism over a draft law which has been proposed to regulate NGOs in Egypt.
Human Rights Watch has branded the legislation an “assault” on rights groups, while some activists and rights workers have claimed it would be even more repressive than any measures previously achieved by toppled President Hosni Mubarak.
Bassem Samir, director of the Egyptian Democratic Academy, an organisation working to promote democratic participation, told The Independent that the campaign against NGOs was a “high jump backwards”.