U.S. underscores Egypt NGO concerns as staffers depart

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 01, 2012 2:07 PM
U.S. underscores Egypt NGO concerns as staffers depart

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States on Thursday expressed continued concern over Egypt's crackdown on pro-democracy groups following an Egyptian court order permitting the departure of American nongovernmental organization staffers who had been under a travel ban.

"We are very pleased that the Egyptian courts have now lifted the travel ban on our NGO employees. The U.S. government has provided a plane to facilitate their departure and they have left the country. They are currently en route home," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.

"The departure of our people doesn't resolve the legal case or the larger issues concerning the NGOs," Nuland said.

"We remain deeply concerned about the prosecution of NGOs in Egypt and the ultimate outcome of the legal process, and we will keep working with the Egyptian government on these issues."

The group of 15 people, included eight Americans, three Serbians, two Germans, one Norwegian and one Palestinian, Egypt's official news agency said. U.S. officials had previously said there were only seven Americans involved still in Egypt.

Egyptian authorities had accused the nongovernmental organization campaigners, including the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, of working for groups receiving illegal foreign funding and prevented them from leaving the country.

U.S. officials had warned that the case jeopardized $1.3 billion in annual military aid to Egypt. Nuland emphasized that any U.S. decision to maintain aid would hinge on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton certifying that Egypt is meeting a variety of democratic benchmarks.

"I am not going to speak to how the decisions will be made, when the time comes," Nuland said.

"We continue to want to see the NGO situation settled in a manner that allows all NGOs, our own, European NGOs, other international NGOs and Egyptian NGOs to be registered. We think that's part and parcel of the democratic transition," she said.

Nuland confirmed that the NGOs, which include the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI), both of which receive U.S. government funding, had posted bail to secure the release of their employees.

The Egyptian court had set bail of 2 million Egyptian pounds ($330,000) each.

She also said that the charges against the NGO staffers had not been dropped, but that it would be up to each individual to decide whether to return to Egypt for further legal proceedings.

Sixteen of the 43 people charged in Egypt's broader probe of nongovernmental organizations are Americans. Some of the U.S. activists had sought refuge in the U.S. embassy, which had no comment on the case.

The IRI, which employs Sam LaHood as its Egypt director, welcomed his release and the release of other staffers. But it said it remained concerned over Egypt's investigation of civil society groups and hopeful that all charges would be dropped.

The IRI said in a statement that it remained very concerned about the situation "and the impact it will have on Egypt's ability to move forward with the democratic transition that so many Egyptians have sought."

(Reporting By Andrew Quinn; Editing by Will Dunham)