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U.S., international NGO workers out of Egypt

From Mohamed Fadel Fahmy, for CNN
March 2, 2012 -- Updated 1225 GMT (2025 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The activists' organizations posted bail for them, the State Department says
  • Transportation Secretary LaHood pleased son can come home
  • Their organizations were targeted in a government crackdown in December
  • The activists had faced charges in an Egyptian court

Cairo (CNN) -- A group of American, European and Palestinian pro-democracy activists accused of fomenting unrest in Egypt left Cairo on a plane after being allowed to post bail, U.S. and Egyptian authorities said.

The group had been under a travel ban that Egypt's government lifted this week, two months after a series of raids that targeted international nongovernmental organizations.

"The U.S. government has provided a plane to facilitate their departure, and they have left the country," U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Thursday.

Nuland said the groups posted bail on behalf of their workers -- an amount that had been set at 2 million Egyptian pounds (about $332,000) each -- and whether they would return to face trial was "an issue that each one of them will have to make their own decision about."

What in the world: Egypt

One of the organizations involved praised the decision, but expressed concern for its Egyptian staffers who remained behind. And Nuland said the departure "doesn't resolve the legal case or the larger issues concerning the NGOs," which have strained ties between Cairo and Washington, its leading ally.

Nuland said the group that left Cairo included American, Norwegian, German, Serbian and Palestinian activists, but she had no further details. They were among 43 NGO workers who faced fraud charges in an Egyptian court after the December raids.

Gen. Marwan Mustapha, an Egyptian Interior Ministry spokesman, initially told CNN that the group included British nationals, but the Foreign Office in London said it did not believe any Britons were involved.

One of the Americans was Sam LaHood, director of Egypt operations for the International Republican Institute and the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

"I'm pleased the court has lifted the travel ban and am looking forward to my son's arrival in the U.S.," LaHood said in a statement issued Thursday afternoon. "I'd like to thank everyone for their thoughts and prayers during this time."

The International Republican Institute, meanwhile, said it "welcomes this decision and is hopeful that the charges against its expatriate and local Egyptian staff will be dismissed."

"IRI views the decision as a positive development, but remains very concerned about the situation and our Egyptian employees along with the continuing investigations of Egyptian civil society groups and the impact it will have on Egypt's ability to move forward with the democratic transition that so many Egyptians have sought," it said in a written statement.

Other groups targeted by the December raids were the National Democratic Institute, Freedom House, the International Center for Journalists and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. Their employees were charged with operating in Egypt without being officially registered and receiving foreign funding.

Egyptian authorities called their work part of a pattern of international interference that was stoking continued protests against the current military-led government. An Egyptian court opened their trial on fraud charges Sunday, but adjourned until late April after the charges were formally read -- and the three judges handling the case stepped down Tuesday.

Only seven of the Americans were believed to have remained in Egypt, all of them at the U.S. Embassy. Their departure could ease a tense patch between Egypt and the United States, which provides $1.3 billion in annual aid to Egypt's military.

U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, said members of Congress had moved to cut off that aid as a result of the crackdown, a move he said could have had a "significant impact" on U.S.-Egyptian ties.

But McCain, who discussed the issue with Egyptian leaders during a visit to Egypt in February, said the leaders of Egypt's new parliament agreed that the law restricting NGOs "needed to be revised" after the uprising that toppled longtime strongman Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

"That seemed to be a major factor in unsticking what had clearly been a situation which day by day grew to be more of a crisis," he said.

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