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Egypt convicts NGO workers, including 16 Americans

Wednesday - 6/5/2013, 3:00am  ET

FILE In this Thursday, March 8, 2012 file photo, American Robert Becker of the National Democratic Institute leaves the defendants' cage after a hearing in the trial of employees of nonprofit groups in Cairo, Egypt. An Egyptian court on Tuesday convicted 43 nonprofit workers, including at least 16 Americans, of illegally using foreign funds to foment unrest in the country, sentencing them to up to five years in jail. Most of the Americans had left the country. Present at Tuesday's hearing was Becker, who received a two-year sentence. Becker has maintained that his refusal to flee Egypt with fellow Americans who were in the country at the time of the crackdown on nonprofit groups was to show solidarity with his Egyptian colleagues. (AP Photo, File )

Associated Press

CAIRO (AP) -- An Egyptian court on Tuesday sentenced 43 non-profit workers, including the son of the U.S. secretary of transportation and 15 other Americans, to prison in a case against foreign-funded pro-democracy groups.

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

The verdict was strongly denounced by the United States, with Secretary of State John Kerry and a host of powerful lawmakers expressing their outrage and berating the trial and the verdict 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 non-profit 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 on Tuesday just hours after the verdict was announced, according to a Cairo airport official who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.

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."

Becker's ex-wife of seven years, the Rev. Lisa McGehee, 48, of suburban Richmond, Virginia, said she was saddened by the conviction, but was proud of Becker for standing up for his beliefs.

"As long as I have known him, he will fight for the underdog and for what he believes to be truth," said McGehee, a minister at Good Shepherd United Methodist Church in Glen Allen.

McGehee still keeps in touch with Becker and his family but she had not spoken to either since the verdict.

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 also 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 seizure of the assets of the groups "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."

"I urge the Government of Egypt to work with civic groups as they respond to the Egyptian people's aspirations for democracy as guaranteed in Egypt's new constitution."

Three senior Republican senators -- John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte -- 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, saying the verdict will have a "serious impact" on relations with Egypt. "I call upon the Egyptian authorities to immediately review and overturn this misguided decision," he said in a statement.

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, Washington's closest Middle East ally. Besides the $1.3 billion in U.S. military aid, Egypt also receives about $250 million in economic aid every year.

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