Middle East

Egypt US: Foreign democracy activists on trial in Cairo

Egyptian police raid an NGO office in Cairo on 29 December 2011
Image caption Computers and documents were seized by Egyptian authorities during December's raids

The trial of 43 pro-democracy activists, including at least 16 Americans, has begun in Egypt.

The defendants are accused of receiving illegal funding from foreign governments, including the US.

The arrests have severely strained relations between Egypt and the US, with threats that aid could be cut.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the BBC Washington was in intense talks with Egypt over the case.

"We are working with the highest levels of the existing Egyptian authorities and we're hoping to get this resolved," she said.

The BBC's Jon Leyne in Cairo says the courtroom, packed with journalists, was chaotic as a long list of names and charges was read out.

Not all of the 43 defendants appeared at the hearing, which was adjourned until 26 April.

Even though no evidence has been heard yet, one of the prosecutors called for the maximum possible sentence to be imposed; another suggested the judges should consider an exchange for an Egyptian cleric, Omar Abdel Rahman, sentenced to life in prison in the US for his role in a plot to blow up New York landmarks and tunnels.

Some of the Americans have taken refuge in the US embassy after being refused permission to leave Egypt. Some defendants were already abroad when the travel ban was ordered.

The other defendants are also said to include Egyptians, Germans, Palestinians, Norwegians and Serbs.

Secretary's son

Image caption Sam Lahood, left, is seen here with his father Ray in January 2009

The International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI) - both loosely associated with the US Republican and Democratic parties - as well as Freedom House and the German Konrad-Adenauer Foundation were among 17 local and foreign NGOs whose offices were raided by prosecutors in late December, with documents and computers seized.

Among the accused are Sam LaHood, head of Egypt operations for IRI and son of US Secretary of Transportation Ray Lahood.

The charges mainly revolve around operating illegally in Egypt and receiving foreign funding illegally, David Kramer, president of Freedom House, said.

"In order to apply for registration to operate legally, organisations need to set up an office, to hire a staff and to have activities, and we believe on that basis we were operating in full accord with Egyptian law," he told the BBC.

Human rights groups have strongly criticised the Egyptian investigation. They say the charges are part of an orchestrated campaign to silence groups critical of Egypt's ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf).

The case has provoked loud protests from Washington, and even threats to cut off the $1.5bn (£1bn) of aid paid to Egypt each year.

But inside Egypt, the raids and arrests have won widespread popular support, relieving some of the pressure on the military council as it moves towards a handover of power to civilians in the coming months, our correspondent reports.

One Egyptian minister has accused the organisations of trying to spread chaos in the country.

Correspondents say that since the fall of President Mubarak, hundreds of Egyptian NGOs have also come under investigation from the government.

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