Egypt lifts travel ban on NGO trial defendants: sources

Photo: Egypt lifts travel ban on NGO trial defendants: sources / Arab World

Egypt has lifted a travel ban on democracy activists, including Americans, on trial for receiving illicit foreign funding in a case that has tested relations with Washington, prosecution sources said on Wednesday.

A day after judges trying the case stepped aside for unspecified reasons, the sources said the defendants, which are said to include 19 Americans, may leave the country, AFP reported.

Hafez Abu Saada, a lawyer for some of the defendants, said he had been told the ban had been lifted but that the defendants would have to post bail of two million pounds (roughly $330,000/247,000 euros).

None of the defendants have been arrested.

Several of the Americans have sought refuge in their Cairo embassy, including Sam LaHood, the head of the US-based International Republican Institute and son of US transportation secretary Ray LaHood.

The trial has led to one of the widest rifts between Washington and its ally Egypt in recent history.

US legislators have threatened that pressing on with it could imperil more than $1.3 billion the US yearly gives to Egypt, mostly to the military.

On Tuesday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told senators that the administration was moving towards a resolving the case "very soon."

"We've had a lot of very tough conversations and I think we are moving toward a resolution," she said.

Her remarks came hours before the judges presiding over the trial, which opened on Sunday, recused themselves. They used a phrase that could have either meant unease at the proceedings or their sense that they were being restricted.

The activists worked with five foreign NGOs accused of receiving illicit foreign funds and operating without licenses.

Four of the groups are American and the remaining one is German, and there are 43 defendants altogether.

Aside from the Americans, they are Egyptian, Palestinian, Norwegian, Serbian and German. None of them attended Sunday's session.

The defendants and their lawyers have denied the charges, which they said were political.

Prosecutors, backed by police, raided the groups' offices in December, confiscating equipment and sealing their doors.

The investigation came as the country's ruling generals, who took power after an uprising overthrew president Hosni Mubarak a year ago, faced growing protests pressuring them to hand power to civilians immediately.

Fayza Abul Naga, the international cooperation minister believed to be the driving force behind the trial, claimed to investigating judges that the NGOs were part of a US plan to spread chaos in Egypt.

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