CAIRO – An Egyptian court on Thursday acquitted 43 people, including German and U.S. nationals, of charges they illegally received funding for their local and foreign non-governmental organizations, a move that Amnesty International described as a step in the right direction.
The verdict ended a seven-year legal battle that rattled civil society groups just months after a 2011 uprising forced autocrat Hosni Mubarak to step down after 29 years in power.
A lower court convicted the 43 in 2013. The Court of Cassation, Egypt's highest appeals court, threw out that verdict in April this year and ordered a fresh trial, which culminated in Thursday's ruling. None of the 43 spent time in jail. The only three who received prison terms — up to three years — were tried in absentia.
Egypt's military had claimed that protests against its direct rule between February 2011 and June 2012 were funded by foreigners. It ordered raids on more than a dozen offices of rights and freedom advocacy groups, seizing files and computers.
Amnesty International said the verdict was a step in the right direction, saying it was a "bogus" case that targeted human rights defenders for doing their work.
"However, today's ruling only relates to the first phase of the case which investigated the funding of international organizations; the investigation into local Egyptian NGOs is ongoing and dozens of staff are still at risk," said Najia Bounaim, Amnesty's North Africa campaigns director.
"The key test now will be whether today's court decision paves the way for an end to the persecution of all human rights defenders in the country," it said, calling on the government to lift travel bans and asset freezes against NGO staff and drop investigations into Egyptian NGOs and human rights workers.
Germany also welcomed the verdict, which acquitted two employees of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, a pro-democracy and rights group linked to Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative party.
"They and the foundation are now officially rehabilitated," said a Foreign Ministry statement. "This verdict ends a years-long dispute that weighed on our relations with Egypt."
Since the NGOs case opened, Egyptian authorities have frozen the assets of at least six rights groups and 10 human rights advocates. At least 30 human rights workers and administrators have been banned from travel. Investigating judges, meanwhile, intermittently call in human rights activists for questioning.
The crackdown on rights groups has been accompanied by a defamation campaign by the pro-government media that portrayed activists behind the 2011 uprising as foreign agents, paid to plunge Egypt into chaos for the benefit of its enemies. General-turned-president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi has blamed the uprising for the country's economic woes, labeling it the wrong remedy that followed a misdiagnosis.
El-Sissi has recently ordered a revision of a law that placed draconian restrictions on the work of civil society groups, with the intention of reducing the veto power given to security agencies over their work. That task will most likely leave unchanged the restrictions placed on rights and pro-democracy groups, but relax them for medical, housing and social charities.
Associated Press writer Frank Jordans contributed to this report from Berlin.