John Kerry slams Egypt NGO trial

2013-06-05 07:55

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Washington - US Secretary of State John Kerry voiced concern Tuesday about the sentences handed down by a Cairo court on 43 Egyptian and foreign NGO workers, denouncing it as a "politically-motivated" trial.

"This decision runs contrary to the universal principle of freedom of association and is incompatible with the transition to democracy," Kerry said in a statement after the court ordered jail terms of one to five years.

"The United States is deeply concerned by the guilty verdicts and sentences, including the suspended sentences, handed down by an Egyptian court today against 43 NGO representatives in what was a politically-motivated trial."

The workers were put on trial after a series of 2011 raids on the offices of foreign NGOs, many which had operated without licenses under ousted president Hosni Mubarak, but which the new authorities deemed had received illicit funds.

Among the defendants were 16 Americans, the State Department confirmed, adding that it had raised their cases at the highest levels of the Egyptian government following Tuesday's verdicts and sentences.

The criminal court sentenced 27 defendants in absentia to five years.

Five defendants who were present in the country, including one American, were sentenced to two years behind bars and each was ordered to pay fines of 1 000 Egyptian pounds (almost $145).

The remaining 11 were given one-year suspended sentences.

The decision to close the offices of the non-governmental organizations "contradicts the government of Egypt's commitments to support the role of civil society as a fundamental actor in a democracy," Kerry said.

Regional security concerns

"Civic groups and international NGOs play a legitimate role in any democracy and are critical to advancing freedoms... and acting as appropriate checks on the government," the top US diplomat insisted in his sharply-worded statement.

"I urge the government of Egypt to work with civic groups as they respond to the Egyptian people's aspirations for democracy as guaranteed in Egypt's new constitution."

The crackdown on the NGOs led to a crisis in relations between Cairo and Washington, which Egypt tried to defuse by allowing some activists to leave the country, including Sam LaHood, the son of US transport secretary Ray LaHood.

US media reports said LaHood was among those given a suspended five-year sentence, while Freedom House Egypt director Nancy Okail said in a statement that she had received a similar term.

It was not immediately clear whether the sentencing would affect US aid to Egypt, although State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said some of the funding went towards the work that "needs to be done on their democratic transition.

"Our assistance to Egypt reflects mutual interest in addressing regional security concerns that have helped maintain peace and security in the region for 30 years," she told reporters.

"We believe that the Egyptian people deserve the benefit of a lot of these programmes and a lot of these aid efforts that we have provided to date."

In March Kerry pledged $250m out of $450m in extra US aid would be released to help the country's dilapidated economy. But he suggested the rest would be contingent on Cairo's progress in negotiating an IMF loan.

In a joint statement, three leading Republican senators warned that if Tuesday's ruling is not overturned it would have "significant negative implications on US-Egypt relations."

Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte called on Congress to "conduct a comprehensive review of US assistance to Egypt."

It is "increasingly impossible to argue that the Egyptian government is safeguarding and advancing the democratic values that inspired the Egyptian revolution of 2011", they added.

Read more on:    john kerry  |  egypt  |  us  |  north africa

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