All three judges on Tuesday pulled out of Egypt's trial of 43 pro-democracy workers, including 16 Americans, according to a court official, throwing into question the case that has ripped U.S.-Egypt relations.
The defendants are charged with using illegal foreign funds to foment unrest that has roiled Egypt over the past year. The pro-democracy groups and the U.S. flatly deny the charges, and U.S. officials have hinted that foreign aid to Egypt is in jeopardy.
Lead Judge Mohammed Shoukry said Tuesday that "the court felt uneasiness" in handling the case, according to the court official. He did not elaborate.
The official said new judges will be assigned to the case. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.
The trial has proceeded only as far as its opening session, and it would need to be restarted with a new panel of judges. Coupled with indications that the two countries are trying to find an acceptable resolution to the crisis, it was seen possible that the trial might be called off at some point.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told two Senate panels on Tuesday that the United States and Egypt are "in very intensive discussions about finding a solution."
"We've had a lot of very tough conversations," she said. "We're moving toward a resolution."
"It's important that they know that we are continuing to push them," she said.
Egyptian lawyer and rights activist Ahmed Seif al-Islam said it was hard to interpret what was behind the resignations.
He said that judges pull out of cases over relationships with defendants or their lawyers. In other cases, especially the political ones, judges might feel pressure and prefer to stay away.
"In general, the main reason is that the judge feels that he cannot act as a real judge, and his rulings would be unfair or influenced," Seif al-Islam said.
The affair began in December when Egyptian security raided 17 offices of 10 pro-democracy and human rights groups, confiscating documents and equipment. It led to charges that the groups have financed protests over the past year with illegally obtained funds and have failed to register with the government as required.
The groups insist their financing is transparent, and all their efforts to register have been stalled by the Egyptian government.
The charges dovetail with constant pronouncements from Egypt's military rulers that protests against their rule are directed by unnamed, dark foreign forces, a claim that is ridiculed by Egyptian activists.
Furious over the charges and travel bans against civil society workers, the United States has threatened to cut off aid to Egypt, putting at risk $1.3 billion in military aid this year and another $250 million in economic assistance. Egyptian officials claim the matter is entirely in the hands of the judiciary, and many of them view the U.S. threat as unacceptable meddling.
The trial began Sunday, but the foreign defendants were not present. Shoukry declared a two-month adjournment to give lawyers time to read the case files, said to be in excess of 1,500 pages, and for authorities to find interpreters for non-Arabic speaking defendants.
Of the 43 defendants in the case, 16 are Americans, 16 are Egyptians, and others are German, Palestinian, Serb and Jordanian. Of the 16 Americans, seven have been banned from leaving Egypt, among them Sam LaHood, son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. Several have taken refuge at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.
The 43 worked for the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, Freedom House, a group that trains journalists and a German nonprofit organization. If convicted, they could face up to five years in prison.