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.
Beside its annual aid to Egypt, U.S. leverage can be decisive in determining whether the International Monetary Fund gives Egypt a $4.8 billion loan to kick start its ailing economy. While the proposed loan can only meet some of Egypt's pressing needs, it would unlock billions of dollars in pledged aid by Gulf Arab nations and Europe.
Germany, one of Egypt's biggest donors and trade partners, was also angered by the verdict. Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle called the ruling "troubling" and said it weakens civil society, "which is an important pillar of democracy in the new democratic Egypt."
Heba Morayef, the Egypt director of Human Rights Watch, said she was baffled by the conviction.
"Everyone knew it was a politicized trial and the judge could have had a way out if he suspended everyone's sentence," she said. "The trial, in some ways, reflects the paranoia that is in the president's draft law for non-governmental organizations."
Morsi has proposed a controversial bill regulating NGOs, soon to be debated by the interim, Islamist-dominated parliament.
The bill would allow the state to control nonprofits' activities as well as their domestic and international funding, Human Rights Watch said last week. "It is extremely repressive," Morayef said.
In a joint statement last week, 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 Mubarak's 29-year rule.
They also expressed fears that foreign nonprofits would be treated with hostility and that vaguely worded legislation would hinder operations or the issuance of work permits.
Nonprofit pro-democracy groups have trained thousands of young Egyptians in political activism and organizing, an education that played a key part in the success of the 2011 uprising that toppled Mubarak.
The crackdown against the nonprofit groups began in late December 2011, when Egyptian security raided offices of 10 pro-democracy and human rights groups. The 43 NGO workers, including the 16 Americans, were then charged with using illegal funds and promoting protests against the then-ruling military.
The groups hotly denied the charges. Nine of the Americans charged happened to be out of the country when the raids took place. Before the trial started, six other American defendants, including Sam LaHood, were flown out of the country after paying bail in not yet fully explained circumstances. The deal, however, could not have been struck without the approval of the then-ruling military.
During the trial, the prosecution maintained that the four U.S. groups and the German organization illegally received about $50 million in funds, most after Mubarak's fall. It claimed that the groups were engaged in illegal polling, training in political activism and other actions without the knowledge or the approval of authorities.
Their activity, prosecutor Abdullah Yassin told the court last year, amounted to an "infringement of the sovereignty of the state of Egypt.
The trial clearly took its toll on some of the defendants.
Egyptian Nancy Okail, who received a five-year sentence, wrote on her Facebook page that hearing her sentence took her back to the first time she was shoved into the defendants' cage in the Cairo courtroom.
"I was suddenly transformed to the very first moment when I was shoved into the court cage, with the smell and the echoing sound in the court and my mixed sense of fear and unlimited strength when my eyes fell on the first sentence scribbled on the cage wall: 'If defending justice is a crime, then long live criminality'." Okail said she was currently in Washington.
Defense lawyer Negad Borai said none of the defendants were in detention and that they could now either surrender to authorities to go to jail pending their appeal or, if they don't, be issued with arrest warrants.
Associated Press writer Michael Felberbaum in Richmond, Virginia, contributed to this story.