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Egypt sentences 43 prodemocracy workers

16 Americans get jail terms, but all have left country

Robert Becker of the National Democratic Institute attended much of his trial before the verdict.

associated press/file

Robert Becker of the National Democratic Institute attended much of his trial before the verdict.

CAIRO — An Egyptian court on Tuesday sentenced 43 nonprofit workers, including the son of the US secretary of transportation and 15 other Americans, to prison in a case against foreign-funded prodemocracy groups.

The ruling and heavy jail time of up to five years deepen worries over the operations of nongovernmental organizations in Egypt as Parliament considers a bill proposed by President Mohammed Morsi that critics warn will profoundly restrict their activities.

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The verdicts were strongly denounced by the United States, with Secretary of State John Kerry and powerful lawmakers expressing outrage and berating the trial and the verdicts as politically motivated and incompatible with Egypt’s transition to democratic rule.

The defendants were convicted on charges of receiving foreign funds to foment unrest in Egypt. The charges were rooted in claims that the nonprofit groups, which were working in various forms of democracy training, were fueling protests in 2011 against the military, which took power after the fall of autocrat Hosni Mubarak in February that year.

The verdict, read out by Judge Makram Awad, also ordered the closure of the offices and seizure of the assets in Egypt belonging to the US nonprofit groups and a German organization for which many of the defendants worked. These are the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, Freedom House, a center for training journalists, and Germany’s Konrad Adenauer Foundation.

All but one of the Americans were sentenced in absentia because they had long left the country, including Sam LaHood, son of the Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. He received a five-year jail term.

The only American defendant who remained in Egypt throughout the trial was Robert Becker, who was sentenced to two years. He left on a flight to Rome just hours after the verdict, according to a Cairo airport official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.

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Becker had said he refused to flee with the other Americans before the trial to show solidarity with his Egyptian colleagues.

‘‘I am honored to have stood in a cage for a dozen hearings this past year-and-a-half with my colleagues,’’ Becker, 44, who was not in the courtroom Tuesday, wrote in a blog entry the night before. ‘‘They are my brothers and sisters and personal heroes, and no trial verdict will break that bond.’’

Of the 43 defendants, 27 received five-year jail terms. Another five received two years while 11, all of them Egyptian, got suspended one-year sentences. In Egypt, defendants tried in absentia typically are convicted and receive the maximum sentence for a specific offense. However, if they return and give themselves up, they get an automatic retrial.

On trial beside the Egyptians and Americans were eight other foreigners, of Serbian, Palestinian, Lebanese, and other nationalities.

In a statement, Kerry said closing the offices and seizing the groups’ assets contradict “Egypt’s commitments to support the role of civil society as a fundamental actor in a democracy and contributor to development, especially at this critical stage in the Egyptian people’s democratic transition.’’

Three senior Republican senators — John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire — warned that, if left unchanged, the verdict will have ‘‘significant negative implications’’ for Washington’s relations with Cairo.

‘‘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 said.

Democratic Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania made a similar threat in a separate statement, adding: ‘‘I call upon the Egyptian authorities to immediately review and overturn this misguided decision.’’

Egypt and the United States have been close allies for more than three decades, with the Egyptian military receiving more than $1 billion in aid annually. The aid is linked to Egypt’s adherence to the American-mediated 1979 peace treaty with Israel. Besides the $1.3 billion in military aid, Egypt also receives about $250 million in economic aid every year.

Beside its annual aid to Egypt, US leverage can be decisive in determining whether the International Monetary Fund gives Egypt a $4.8 billion loan to kick start its ailing economy.

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