Samer al-Atrush, AFP
Last updated: 29 February, 2012

Egypt lifts travel ban on NGO trial defendants

Egypt has lifted a travel ban on democracy activists, including Americans, on trial for receiving illicit foreign funding in a case that has tested relations with Washington, prosecution sources said on Wednesday.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton quickly welcomed the news but said Washington was still awaiting confirmation.

A day after judges trying the case stepped aside for unspecified reasons, the Egyptian sources said the defendants, which are said to include 19 Americans, may leave the country.

Hafez Abu Saada, a lawyer for some of the defendants, said he had been told the ban had been lifted but that the defendants would have to post bail of two million pounds (roughly $330,000/247,000 euros) each.

None of the defendants have been arrested.

Several of the Americans have sought refuge in their Cairo embassy, including Sam LaHood, the head of the US-based International Republican Institute and son of US transportation secretary Ray LaHood.

The trial has led to one of the widest rifts between Washington and its ally Egypt in recent history.

US legislators have threatened that pressing on with it could imperil more than $1.3 billion the US yearly gives to Egypt, mostly to the military.

Clinton said in Washington she was encouraged by the latest reports.

“We do not have confirmation that the travel ban has been lifted. We hope that it will be and we will continue to work toward that,” she told the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

But she added: “The reporting is encouraging.”

At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney told reporters: “I don’t have any specific information about the reports that you mention.”

Carney added: “We have made clear throughout the process that we consider it a very serious matter and that it had the potential of affecting our (US-Egypt) relationship. I don’t want to get too far ahead of these reports.”

On Tuesday, Clinton had told senators that the administration was moving towards a resolving the case “very soon.”

“We’ve had a lot of very tough conversations and I think we are moving toward a resolution,” she said.

Soon after Clinton made her remarks, the judges presiding over the trial, which opened on Sunday, recused themselves. They used a phrase that could have either meant unease at the proceedings or their sense that they were being restricted.

The activists worked with five foreign NGOs accused of receiving illicit foreign funds and operating without licenses.

Four of the groups are American and the remaining one is German, and there are 43 defendants altogether.

Aside from the Americans, they are Egyptian, Palestinian, Norwegian, Serbian and German. None of them attended Sunday’s session.

The defendants and their lawyers have denied the charges, which they said were political.

Prosecutors, backed by police, raided the groups’ offices in December, confiscating equipment and sealing their doors.

The investigation came as the country’s ruling generals, who took power after an uprising overthrew president Hosni Mubarak a year ago, faced growing protests pressuring them to hand power to civilians immediately.

Fayza Abul Naga, the international cooperation minister believed to be the driving force behind the trial, claimed to investigating judges that the NGOs were part of a US plan to spread chaos in Egypt.