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Trial of NGO workers set to resume in Egypt

By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 6:51 AM EDT, Tue June 5, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • 43 defendants are on trial, many in absentia
  • American Robert Becker is staying in Cairo to stand trial
  • If convicted, he could face up to six year in Egyptian prison
  • U.S. official: We object to what we view as politically-motivated trials

Cairo (CNN) -- The trial of nongovernmental organizations accused of operating illegally in Egypt is slated to resume Tuesday as the case fuels a diplomatic rift between the United States and Egypt.

A total of 43 workers are on trial after authorities targeted 10 NGOs in a series of December raids. The defendants include 17 foreigners -- 10 Americans, three Serbians, two Germans, a Norwegian and a Palestinian. The rest are Egyptians.

The employees were charged with operating in Egypt without being officially registered and receiving foreign funding.

Egyptian officials said their work contributed to international interference that was stoking continued protests against the government. The case of the NGOs sparked one of the worst crises in Egyptian-American relations at the time.

"We continue to make very clear our objection to what we view as these politically motivated trials, and urge the government to stop trying these individuals and instead resolve any outstanding issues that they may have on this matter on a government to government basis," Mark Toner, deputy spokesman for the U.S. State Department, said Monday.

U.S. workers no-shows in Egypt court

A group of American, European and Palestinian defendants had been under a travel ban that was eventually lifted. Most left Cairo after posting about $132,000 each in bail money. They will be tried in absentia.

Sixteen Americans were part of the group, including Sam LaHood, the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

American Robert Becker chose to stay in Cairo and face state prosecutors.

If found guilty, Becker could face up to six years in an Egyptian prison. But he says it's a risk he's willing to take.

"It's a concern. But again, at the end of the day, the guys that I'm going to be in the cage with are part of my family," said Becker, who was working with the National Democratic Institute. "I keep saying captains stay with their crew. There is no way that I would be able to live with myself being safely in the United States if they were potentially facing a jail term."

Becker has experience as a political organizer, with skills greatly in demand in a suddenly re-politicized Egypt.

"Part of our mandate at the NDI was that we trained and we taught everybody, from Islamists ... nationalists, liberals, socialists" and supporters of ousted President Hosni Mubarak, Becker said. "So it was thousands of them."

Becker's colleague, Hafsa Halawa, said she is confident justice will prevail.

"We're not guilty of these crimes," Halawa said. "Regardless of the political issues surrounding the case, people cry it's a bogus charge."

If the trial ends with acquittal, however, victory will be bittersweet for Becker. His employer, the NDI, paid his bail and continues to cover his legal expenses, but terminated his services.

The other groups targeted by the raids include Freedom House, the International Center for Journalists and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation.

A group of American lawmakers have said Egypt's action could mean the end of $1.3 billion in U.S. aid.

In a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, 41 members of Congress urged the administration to withhold aid to Egypt until the country's leadership allows the offices of those organizations to reopen and returns seized property.

CNN's Ben Wedeman and Libby Lewis contributed to this report

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