By Amina Ismail and Haitham Ahmed
CAIRO (Reuters) – Forty NGO workers, including at least 15 Americans, were cleared on Thursday by an Egyptian court in a case concerning the work of groups promoting democracy in the country.
In 2013, a group of 43 Americans, Europeans, Egyptians and other Arabs were sentenced to jail terms ranging from one to five years on charges including operating non-governmental organisations without necessary approval.
NGOs have felt exposed since late 2011, when authorities raided 17 pro-democracy and rights groups, accusing them of joining a foreign conspiracy against Egypt after the uprising that toppled veteran leader Hosni Mubarak.
Egypt’s crackdown on organisations including U.S.-based groups linked to the United States’ two main political parties caused outrage in Washington, which supplies Cairo with $1.3 billion (£1.02 billion) in military aid each year.
The groups included the U.S.-based International Republican Institute (IRI), National Democratic Institute (NDI) and Freedom House. Their offices were ordered to close.
Now, Judge Mohamed Ali al-Fiki has cleared 40 defendants of all charges at a re-trial, including at the least 15 Americans who left Egypt and had received their sentences in absentia.
The re-trial came about after Egypt’s top appeal court overturned the jail sentences of 16 of the workers in April and ordered the new hearing.
“This is a breath of fresh air, I am happy,” said British-Egyptian Hafsa Halawa, a former NDI programme assistant, and one of the defendants.
“We have all kept our heads down for several years to let this try and blow over.”
The three defendants who were not acquitted on Thursday are among those who were sentenced in absentia, but did not apply for a retrial, a judicial source said.
Al-Fiki also acquitted an Egyptian-American woman in 2017 after spending three years in detention for her civil society work.
Since forcing out President Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood in mid-2013, general-turned-President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government has cracked down on the opposition, killing hundreds of Brotherhood supporters and jailing thousands. The net has widened to include liberal and secular activists.
In 2016 Egypt launched another crackdown on local human rights groups, questioning staff, ordering asset freezes and travel ban over accusations they took foreign funding to destabilise the country. None of the NGO staff summoned for questioning have been formally charged.
Timothy Kaldas, non-resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, said the case was not a sign that Egypt was becoming “any less repressive”.
“By all indications the country continues to head in the opposite direction, and more a suggestion that the government would like to iron out its points of tension with the U.S. government.”
(Reporting by Amina Ismail and Haitham Ahmed, writing by Amina Ismail; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Alison Williams)