Egypt Sets Feb. 26 As Start Date For NGO Trial

Published February 18, 2012 12:45PM (EST)

CAIRO (AP) — Egypt will begin hearing the criminal trial of 19 Americans and 24 others on Feb. 26 in a politically charged case against foreign-funded pro-democracy groups, the country's state news agency said Saturday.

The trial represents an escalation in what has become the deepest crisis in U.S.-Egyptian relations in decades. American officials have said the investigation could hinder the more than $1 billion in U.S. aid that Cairo receives. Egyptian authorities have blasted what they call U.S. interference in legal affairs.

Egypt's state news agency reported that the trial would open before a Cairo court on Feb. 26. It said 19 of the 43 defendants are Americans and 16 are Egyptians. The rest are Germans, Palestinians and Jordanians.

The Americans work for four U.S.-based groups: the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, Freedom House and a group that trains journalists.

Only seven of the Americans are in Egypt, and all have been barred from travel. Some have sought refuge at the American Embassy in Cairo, including Sam LaHood, who heads IRI's Egypt office and is the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

It remains unclear if they will attend the trial. U.S. Embassy officials were not immediately available for comment.

The report said all the defendants had been charged with founding and managing offices of international organizations without licenses from the Egyptian government, and with receiving foreign funding. The groups' operations "infringe on Egyptian sovereignty," it said.

The setting of a trial date by Egypt, in addition to a campaign against NGOs in the state media, are likely to inflame a crisis that U.S. officials have tried to solve through diplomacy.

President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta have personally met with top officials in Egypt's military-led government, and urged them to end the investigations and allow the U.S. citizens under investigation to leave the country. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey visited Cairo last week in another unsuccessful bid for a solution.

Cairo's failure to respond has prompted Washington lawmakers to advocate withholding the United States' annual aid package to Egypt. U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., will lead a congressional delegation on yet another mission to Egypt in the coming days.

But administration officials are hesitant to push too hard. The U.S. is eager to preserve an alliance with Egypt that has been a foundation of stability in the Middle East since the late 1970s, ensuring peace between the Arab world's most populous country and Israel.

Ending U.S. assistance programs only a year after Egyptians braved the repression in Cairo's Tahrir Square to call for the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak would hardly be a vote of confidence in Arab democracy.

By Salon Staff

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