CAIRO – 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. They include Sam LaHood, son of the U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. He received a five-year jail term.
The verdict also ordered the closure and seizure of the offices and assets in Egypt belonging to U.S. nonprofit groups for which many of the defendants worked, including the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute and Freedom House.
Of the 43 defendants, 27 received five-year jail terms. Another five received two years and 11 got one year. Defendants tried in absentia typically are convicted and receive the maximum sentence but also get an automatic retrial.
The case began in early 2012 during the nearly 17 months of military rule that followed the ouster in the previous year of U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak. The case led to a period of tension in U.S.-Egyptian relations, with Washington warning that, unless resolved, the case could lead to the loss of American aid.
There was no comment immediately available from Washington on Tuesday's ruling, but it will likely be met with dismay from the Obama administration.
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 an 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.
The work and funding of nonprofit groups have consistently been a bone of contention between them and authorities trying to control them. Last week, the New York-based Human Rights Watch and 40 Egyptian rights groups said an Egyptian draft law regulating non-governmental organizations would restrict the funding and operation of independent groups.
The contentious bill, proposed by Islamist President Mohammed Morsi and currently under debate by the country's interim legislature, would allow the state to control nonprofits' activities as well as their domestic and international funding, HRW said. The current form of the bill is a serious regression from earlier versions, it added.
In a joint statement, the 40 Egyptian rights groups accused Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and its political arm of seeking to curb the freedom of rights groups through legal restrictions. They said the proposed law potentially gives Egypt's security apparatus the power to suppress rights group, drawing parallels to Egypt's recent past under the 29-year rule of autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
They also expressed fears foreign nonprofits would be treated with hostility and that vaguely worded legislation would hinder operations or the issuance of work permits.