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Egyptian judges turn up heat on prodemocracy workers

Say those charged in crackdown face five years in prison

AMR NABIL/ASSOCIATED PRESS

A police checkpoint in Cairo. Prosecuting officials allege that some of the 43 people charged entered Egypt on tourist visas.

CAIRO - Investigative judges in Egypt said yesterday that the Americans and Egyptians who have been charged in the government’s crackdown on US-funded prodemocracy groups could face up to five years in prison for working at unlicensed organizations.

The remarks - the most extensive description of the government’s case against the prodemocracy workers to date - did not suggest that investigators had determined that the workers were engaged in nefarious or subversive activities.

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Rather, the investigative judges, who in Egypt’s judicial system serve as the American equivalent of prosecutors, accused the nongovernmental organization workers of failing to pay taxes, entering the country on tourist visas, and training political parties even though the Egyptian government had refused to accredit their employers.

“The case is very big and is a very deep case that includes hundreds of people, organizations, and entities,’’ Judge Sameh Abu Zaid said yesterday during a press conference at the Justice Ministry.

The case has angered US officials and prompted US lawmakers to threaten to cut off financial aid to Egypt. The press conference appeared to suggest that despite an outcry in Washington and among civil society activists in Egypt, the military-led government in Cairo does not intend to water down or dismiss the case soon.

Prime Minister Kamal el-Ganzouri of Egypt confirmed at a separate press conference that the criminal case would proceed despite the growing pressure from Washington.

In outlining the evidence gathered to date, the judges mentioned puzzling items, saying, for instance, that investigators had found maps of Egypt with English scribbling on them in the office of the International Republican Institute in Cairo.

Zaid said the groups were found to be “training political parties on the electoral process,’’ a description consistent with what nongovernmental organizations have said they’ve been doing for months.

Egyptian authorities charged 43 people in the investigation, including 19 they identified as American citizens. However, the State Department said Tuesday that it believes only 16 of the defendants are American. Fewer than half are believed to be in Egypt, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.

The defendants include the Egypt directors of the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute. The latter, Sam LaHood, is the son of US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

Nancy Okail, an Egyptian citizen and the Egypt director of the Freedom House in Washington, D.C., is in Cairo and said recently that she has not received formal charging documents and does not know whether Egyptian authorities intend to detain her and the others who are in the country as part of the legal process.

“It is very tense and very volatile,’’ she said by phone, adding she is eager to fight the charges.

“I would be happy to go in this case until the end because I respect the rule of law, and I think justice will prevail,’’ Okail said. “But I wish we knew that this is a legal case and not a political one. The indication so far is that it is political.’’

Sherif Mansour, a Freedom House employee in Washington who was also charged in the case, said he found the evidence laid out yesterday laughable.

“My first impression is I’m very happy,’’ said Mansour, an Egyptian citizen. “I’m sure my lawyer is, too, seeing the ridiculousness of the evidence.’’

Mansour, a senior program director, said he would gladly travel to Egypt to stand trial.

“This is about disenfranchising civil society and manipulating the relationship with the US,’’ he said. “Egyptian civil society is our strongest hope to protect rights and freedoms in the years ahead.’’

Spokespersons for the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute did not respond to requests for comment on the press conference.

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