NGOs On Trial In Egypt

The trial of more than 40 foreigners involved in democracy-building and civil society projects in Egypt begins Sunday in Cairo. The foreigners face a long list of charges, all of which they have denied. Host Rachel Martin talks with NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to shift our focus to Egypt now, where the trial of 43 NGO workers has been adjourned until April. The Egyptian government has accused them of operating in the country illegally and spurring unrest. Many of those charged are American, including the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

The NGO workers have denied doing anything wrong in a criminal investigation widely seen as politically motivated. The case has caused a lot of tension between the American and Egyptian governments, and it could end up affecting more than a billion dollars in U.S. aid paid annually to Egypt.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has been following the developments, and joins us from Cairo. Hello, Soraya.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So first of all, I understand the Americans who were accused didn't show up to the trial. Is that right?

NELSON: That's true. None of the Westerners did. They have not actually been served with papers. They have not been served a with notice of appearance, and all of them stayed away today. Instead, what you found inside the defendants' cage in the courtroom, which is in the courthouse right behind me here, were Egyptian employees of these NGOs, of these U.S.-funded NGOs.

I could see two women, three men; but there were apparently more in there. It was just so chaotic, it was impossible. I'm not even sure how the defendants could hear what was going on or what was being said.

MARTIN: So remind us, Soraya, what are the defendants being charged with?

NELSON: Well, there are a variety of charges, ranging from these organizations operating illegally in Egypt to receiving funding from the West - or from the United States, in particular, to do things outside of the parameter of civil society. In other words, they're being accused of fomenting unrest and of, you know, maybe training people, or training groups, that are out there protesting all the time.

MARTIN: So you were monitoring this trial. What happened - anything significant?

NELSON: Well, there was a long list of charges and names read, including those of the foreigners, and then they postponed the whole matter until April 26. This time will be used by the defense to review the charges that they have, again, not seen the case yet against most of the clients. But at the same time, this is also a time where the Egyptian and American governments probably will be continuing very intense negotiations, to try to resolve this diplomatically.

MARTIN: So tell us about those negotiations between the Egyptian and U.S. government. We presume there have been intense conversations, as you say. Anything else you've learned about the nature of these talks?

NELSON: Well, I know that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and her counterpart here in Egypt have been talking very intensely, you know, on the phone, and their people have also been communicating. They're being described as intense negotiations. We don't know many more details other than that. But I think all parties involved, other than perhaps the prosecutor and the minister here - who wants to actually see these NGOs go on trial - that the rest of the people would like this to sort of go away. It's embarrassing. They don't want to see American NGO workers sitting in a cage in a courtroom or doing the perp walk, if you will. So it's something that I think many here, and many in the United States, would like to see resolved politically.

MARTIN: So again, the trial has been adjourned until April. We will be following in it - we will be following it. Thanks, Soraya. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, speaking with us from Cairo.

NELSON: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: And you're listening to NPR News.

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