Egypt sets trial date for NGO workers

Egyptian soldiers stand guard in front of the U.S. National Democratic Institute, a non-governmental rights group in downtown Cairo on Dec. 29, 2011. AFP/Getty Images

CAIRO - Egypt said Saturday the criminal trial of 16 Americans and 27 others will start Feb. 26 in a politically charged case against foreign-funded pro-democracy groups that has badly shaken Cairo's ties with Washington.

The trial represents an escalation in what has become the deepest crisis in U.S.-Egypt relations in decades. American officials have threatened to cut $1.5 billion in aid over the spat, and high-level officials have flown in to seek a solution. Egyptian authorities have responded by blasting what they call U.S. meddling in legal affairs.

The growing spat also shows the uncertain path Egypt's military rulers are charting more than one year after a popular uprising pushed President Hosni Mubarak from power. During his nearly 30-year rule, the U.S. tolerated Mubarak's antidemocratic policies and continued to fund his government, knowing he'd uphold Egypt's peace treaty with Israel.

Now, the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces regularly accuses "foreign hands" of backing continued protests against its rule, and the Islamist parties that control about two-thirds of the newly elected parliament have threatened to review the peace treaty with Israel.

The investigation into the pro-democracy and rights groups fits into the wider campaign against alleged foreign influence since Mubarak's ouster.

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The probe began in December, when armed security forces raided the offices of 10 nonprofit groups, shuttering their offices after carting off files and computers.

Egypt's state news agency said Saturday the trial of 43 defendants in the case will begin Feb. 26. The report said 16 of the defendants are Egyptians and 19 are Americans, and the rest are Germans, Palestinians and Jordanians. The U.S. State Department, however, has said there are only 16 Americans facing trial.

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.

Neither IRI nor the U.S. Embassy responded to requests for comment.

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

On Saturday, the al-Ahram state-owned daily published a report it said was based on leaked investigation files. The report accused the organizations of operating outside of Egyptian law to "affect the political process and serve a limited number of political movements in a way that serves the interests of the funders."

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