Court's Ruling Could Prove Difficult for U.S.-Egyptian Relations
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
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And I'm Audie Cornish. Today, Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States is deeply concerned about guilty verdicts and prison sentences handed down today to pro-democracy activists in Egypt. Forty-three people associated with non-governmental organizations were convicted, including at least 16 Americans. The investigation began nearly two years ago, after the ouster of the regime of Hosni Mubarak.
Human rights groups say the action against the NGOs threatens Egypt's transition to democracy. NPR's Leila Fadel spent the day with the one American who stayed in Egypt to fight the charges.
ROBERT BECKER: I'm trying to find out, too, so I need to keep my line clear to talk to my lawyer. So when I know, I'll put out word.
LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Robert Becker fields phone calls at a Cairo cafe where he learned of his sentencing via Twitter.
BECKER: Those who did not leave the country got suspended sentences. The others who did leave got jail time. Stop calling me. Apparently, I've been sentenced to two years.
FADEL: Becker was charged, along with the other activists, after a raid by Egyptian security forces eighteen months ago. Fifteen Americans subsequently fled Egypt after the State Department posted millions in bail. But Becker stayed behind. His employer, the National Democratic Institute, fired him for it. If his employees were going to court, Becker said, he would, too.
But that decision means he may now be going to jail.
BECKER: I am now a convicted felon. I've been convicted of teaching, so, you know, unfortunately, this case was political and that's exactly what it was.
FADEL: The other targeted groups were the International Republican Institute, the International Center for Journalism, Freedom House and the German Konrad Adenauer Institute. They've all been ordered to shut down and their assets in Cairo will be seized.
BECKER: It's a bad day for democracy here, a very bad day. Even with the suspended sentences, I mean, those Egyptians did absolutely nothing wrong.
FADEL: Becker and his colleagues were convicted under a Mubarak-era law that allows for the state to stop civil society work it doesn't like. Under Mubarak, many of these foreign organizations tried to register but were never approved. They operated in a gray area that allowed the Mubarak regime to control them. Now, Egypt's upper house of parliament is discussing a new law drafted by the office of President Mohamed Morsi. But human rights groups say it's not much better.
HEBA MORAYEF: If anything, the new NGO law actually reflects the kind of thinking that led to the NGO trial and the investigation that passed in 2011.
FADEL: That's Heba Morayef, Egypt director for Human Rights Watch. The new law, she says, is just as restrictive as the old law and retains a sense of what she called the xenophobia that allows the government to control the activities and funding of foreign NGOs. But Essam Haddad, a top advisor to the president, says the new law will allow civil society to thrive.
ESSAM HADDAD: Empowering the civil society is part and parcel of the new Egypt. But, of course, we have to strike the balance between opening the civil society and empowering it and making sure that transparency and accountability is of the international standards. Nobody should interfere into internal affairs.
FADEL: As the debate continues, Becker and his colleagues worry about their next move. Lawyers for the defendants say they plan to appeal. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Cairo.