New trial date set for pro-democracy activists in Egypt

A criminal trial against pro-democracy workers, including two Americans, was adjourned until next month in a case that has upset relations between Egypt and the U.S.
CAIRO -- A criminal trial Tuesday against pro-democracy workers, including two Americans, was adjourned until next month in a case that has upset relations between Egypt and the U.S. and raised fears that civil rights activists will face growing pressure from Egyptian authorities.

The Americans -– Robert Becker and Sherif Mansour, who holds dual U.S. and Egyptian citizenship -– appeared in a Cairo courtroom with 13 Egyptians. The hearing dealt with procedural matters, and the next session was scheduled for the first week in July, when Egyptian officials are expected to testify.

The case has marked the worst diplomatic clash between the U.S. and Egypt in decades. Egypt's military-backed interim government has accused some nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, of operating without licenses and receiving illicit funding. The U.S.-based groups include the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute and Freedom House.

Egypt has accused the NGO workers of plotting to provoke unrest following the uprising that forced Hosni Mubarak from power last year. The agencies mainly worked on pro-democracy and civil society programs ahead of Egypt's parliamentary elections, which ended in January.

Cairo's allegations infuriated many American lawmakers, including a number of Republicans who called for the U.S. to cut its $1.3 billion in annual aid to the Egyptian military.

The tension eased in March when Egypt allowed the Americans to depart the country, ending the likelihood they would return for trial. Six Americans left. But Becker, a National Democratic Institute employee who taught Egyptian activists and political parties how to campaign, chose to stay behind with the Egyptian defendants. Mansour, a former Freedom House activist who had been living in the U.S., returned to Egypt on Sunday to face trial.

The evidence "against us doesn't match what we were doing," Becker told The Times. "It doesn't match what we did. ... This is a demonization of NGOs."

The U.S. is urging Egyptian authorities "to stop trying these individuals and instead resolve any outstanding issues that they may have on this matter in a government-to-government basis," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said. He added that the NGOs provided an "important component to a successful democratic transition for Egypt."

All the defendants who appeared in court Tuesday were released until the July hearing, including Mansour, who was detained when he arrived at the Cairo International Airport.

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-- Jeffrey Fleishman

Photo: American Robert Becker of the National Democratic Institute, center, walks with his lawyer, second from left, outside a courthouse after a March 8 hearing in the trial of employees of nonprofit groups in Cairo. Credit: Associated Press

 
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