Last updated: 1 March, 2012

American NGO suspects at Cairo airport

American and other foreign democracy activists on trial in Egypt flew out of Cairo airport on Thursday, airport officials said, a day after the judiciary lifted a travel ban on them.

Their departure is expected to ease tensions with Washington, which had urged Egypt’s military rulers to resolve the case which American officials had suggested could imperil US aid to its key Middle Eastern ally.

The official MENA news agency reported that 15 foreigners left, including eight Americans, heading for Larnaca airport in Cyprus on board a private aircraft, and published a list of the names and nationalities of the passengers.

It said the non-American passengers comprised a Norwegian, three Serbs, two Germans and a Palestinian.

Airport officials had said 17 foreigners including nine Americans who had been on the no-fly list left on a private plane which had flown in from Cyprus. It was not immediately clear why there was a discrepancy in the figures.

The State Department said the United States had dispatched an airplane to retrieve the activists.

“The US government has provided a plane to facilitate their departure and they have left the country,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters in Washington.

“They are currently en route home,” she said.

Earlier on Thursday, the head of the Cairo appeals court, Abdel Moez Ibrahim, confirmed reports that the travel ban had been removed and that each defendant had paid two million pounds (roughly $330,000/247,000 euros) in bail.

The Americans include Sam LaHood, the son of US transportation secretary Ray LaHood and head of the International Republican Institute (IRI) in Egypt. He and several other US citizens had taken refuge inside their Cairo embassy.

Nuland said Washington is “very pleased” that Egyptian courts revoked the travel ban on the activists, but said there are still various sticking points in Washington’s relationship with Egypt.

“The departure of our people doesn’t resolve the legal case or the larger issues concerning the NGOs,” the spokeswoman said.

“We remain deeply concerned about the prosecution of NGOs in Egypt and the ultimate outcome of the legal process. And we will keep working with the Egyptian government on these issues,” said Nuland.

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.

The only defendants who appeared at the trial’s opening session on Sunday, days before the judges recused themselves without providing an explanation, were all Egyptians.

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

The other foreign groups involved in the trial are the National Democratic Institute, Freedom House, the International Centre for Journalists — all American — and the German Konrad Adenauer Foundation.

The trial, which came after raids on the groups’ offices in December, led to a crisis in relations between Egypt and Washington, a close ally of the strategic nation.

Egypt’s military, in power since an uprising ousted president Hosni Mubarak a year ago, appeared to have underestimated the fallout from the crackdown on the civil society groups.

Fayza Abul Naga, the international cooperation minister believed to have sparked the probe into the groups, told investigating judges that the NGOs were part of an American conspiracy to spread chaos in Egypt.

On Thursday, she insisted that the trial would go ahead once a new judicial panel has been appointed.