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Egypt sentences American NGO workers to jail

From Josh Levs and Saad Abedine, CNN
June 4, 2013 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
U.S. national Robert Becker, right, leaves court in Cairo after a trial on allegedly illegally funded NGOs on March 8, 2012.
U.S. national Robert Becker, right, leaves court in Cairo after a trial on allegedly illegally funded NGOs on March 8, 2012.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Kerry: The U.S. is "deeply concerned" about the result of "a politically-motivated trial"
  • Becker, the one American who stayed to face charges, says he's reviewing appeal options
  • Prosecution "had a chilling effect" on human rights groups, activist says
  • In all, 43 NGO workers, including several Americans, were charged

(CNN) -- An Egyptian court sentenced several dozen workers for non-governmental organizations, including Americans, to jail Tuesday in a case that has infuriated the U.S. government and democratic activists around the world.

The workers were accused of having illegal foreign funding. They denied any wrongdoing.

All but one of the Americans were sentenced in absentia, having left the country after posting $132,000 each in bail money.

In all, 43 NGO workers, including several Americans and other foreigners, were charged. The court sentenced 27 NGO workers in absentia to five-year sentences; 11 defendants to one-year suspended jail sentences; and five others to two-year sentences that were not suspended, the state-run Al Ahram newspaper reported.

2012: Egypt's NGO crackdown
2012: U.S.-Egypt ties strained

The court also ordered the closure of five NGOs -- the U.S.-based Freedom House, the International Democratic Institute, the National Democratic Institute, the International Center for Journalists and Germany's Konrad Adenauer Foundation -- and confiscation of their funds.

"Freedom House condemns in the strongest possible terms the conviction of 43 NGO workers, including six currently with Freedom House and a former staff member, after a government-led witch-hunt intended to strangle civil society activity and limit free expression in post-revolutionary Egypt," the agency said in a prepared statement.

Robert Becker of the National Democratic Institute was the only American who stayed behind to fight the charges, along with one German and 13 Egyptians, he said.

It was not immediately clear which sentence he was given.

"Thank you everyone for the kind words. Reviewing my legal/appeals options with lawyers," he tweeted, adding that he is maintaining his innocence "on charges of starting NGO six years before I actually arrived in Egypt."

On Monday, he wrote on his blog that if "evidence matters in an Egyptian court, tomorrow's verdict will be not guilty." But, he added, "this case has been political from the very beginning; so guilty is also real possibility, despite the lack of evidence."

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States is "deeply concerned" about the result of "a politically-motivated trial."

"This decision runs contrary to the universal principle of freedom of association and is incompatible with the transition to democracy," he said in a statement. "Moreover, the decision to close these organizations' offices and seize their assets contradicts the government of 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."

He called on Egypt to "work with civic groups as they respond to the Egyptian people's aspirations for democracy as guaranteed in Egypt's new constitution."

Yehia Ghanem, an Egyptian who worked for the International Center for Journalists -- an American NGO -- received two years in jail and vowed to appeal.

"For me and everyone it was clear the prosecution failed to produce a shred of evidence on all the allegations," he said in a statement Tuesday.

"We were planning on a training course for journalists but we never even had the chance to launch it," he said. "So it's amazing to be tried on something that never even happened -- it's a trial on intentions. We didn't even have a chance to do anything from our good intentions. "

Egyptian officials said the NGOs' work contributed to international interference that was stoking continued protests against the government.

In December 2011, authorities raided the offices of 10 NGOs. The general prosecutor's office said the raids were part of an investigation into allegations that the groups received illegal foreign financing and were operating without proper licenses.

The case sparked a crisis in relations between the United States and Egypt. The U.S. State Department called the charges "politically motivated."

One of the Americans charged and sentenced in absentia is Sam LaHood, the country director of the International Republican Institute and the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

Human Rights Watch called on Egypt last year to drop the charges against the NGO workers, calling the case "a politicized saga."

And the organization Human Rights First said it was "disturbed."

"This prosecution had a chilling effect on the work of independent human rights and democracy promotion organizations in Egypt," said Brian Dooley, director of the organization's defenders program. "The fact that the court issued convictions in the case means that independent NGOs that wish to work in Egypt must do so under the threat of prosecution for exercising their basic human rights."

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