CAIRO (AP) — Egyptian investigating judges on Sunday referred 43 NGO workers, including 19 Americans, to trial before a criminal court for allegedly being involved in banned activities and illegally receiving foreign funds, security officials said.
The decision marked a sharp escalation in a dispute between Cairo and Washington over Egypt's crackdown on U.S.-funded groups promoting democracy and human rights. The two countries have been close allies for more than three decades, but the campaign against the organizations has angered Washington, and jeopardized the more than $1 billion in annual aid Egypt receives from the U.S.
On Saturday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned Egypt's foreign minister that failure to resolve the dispute may lead to the loss of American aid. The Egyptian minister, Mohammed Amr, responded Sunday by saying the government cannot interfere in the work of the judiciary.
"We are doing our best to contain this but ... we cannot actually exercise any influence on the investigating judges right now when it comes to the investigation," Amr told reporters at a security conference in Munich, Germany.
Those referred to trial included five Serbs, two Germans and three non-Egyptian Arab nationals, according to the security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media. Among the 19 Americans is Sam LaHood, the head of the Egypt office of the Washington-based International Republican Institute and the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
All 43 have also been banned from leaving the country. A date has yet to be set for the start of the trial.
The Egyptian investigation into the work of NGOs in the country is closely linked with the political turmoil that has engulfed the nation since the ouster nearly a year ago of Hosni Mubarak, a close U.S. ally who ruled Egypt for nearly 30 years. The generals who took power after Mubarak's fall have accused "foreign hands" of being behind protests against their rule and frequently depict the protesters as receiving funds from abroad in a plot to destabilize the country.
Those allegations have cost the activists behind Mubarak's ouster support among a wider public that is sensitive to foreign meddling and which sees a conspiracy to destabilize Egypt in nearly every move by a foreign nation.
Already, Egyptian authorities are preventing at least six Americans and four Europeans from leaving the country, citing a probe opened last month when heavily armed security forces raided the offices of 17 pro-democracy and rights groups. Egyptian officials have defended the raid as part of a legitimate investigation into the groups' work and funding.
Sunday's decision also slapped a travel ban on all 43 NGO workers referred to trial.