7 freed U.S. democ­racy ac­tivists exit Egypt

The Washington Times Daily - - World - BY MAG­GIE MICHAEL

CAIRO | A plane car­ry­ing seven Amer­i­can pro-democ­racy ac­tivists on trial over their ac­tiv­i­ties took off from Cairo air­port af­ter sunset Thurs­day af­ter the U.S. posted nearly $5 mil­lion in bail, of­fi­cials said, eas­ing a diplo­matic cri­sis over charges that their groups funded and pro­moted antigov­ern­ment protests in Egypt.

With the seven Amer­i­cans safely on their way home, Washington in­di­cated that its anger over the af­fair had not abated. State Depart­ment spokes­woman Vic­to­ria Nu­land expressed re­lief that the Amer­i­cans were free, but she point­edly noted that no decision has been made about U.S. aid to Egypt.

As the cri­sis un­folded over the past two months, fu­ri­ous of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing Sec­re­tary of State Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton, warned that the $1.3 bil­lion in mil­i­tary aid and $250 mil­lion in eco­nomic as­sis­tance slated for Egypt this year was in jeop­ardy.

The 16 Amer­i­cans fac­ing charges are not ex­pected to re­turn to Egypt, but their trial has not been called off. Af­ter the first ses­sion Sun­day, it was ad­journed un­til April, and that rul­ing still stands.

A con­voy of white vans bear­ing the sym­bol of the U.S. Em­bassy ar­rived at Cairo air­port Thurs­day af­ter­noon car­ry­ing the seven, ac­com­pa­nied by em­bassy of­fi­cials.

One of the seven fly­ing out of Egypt on a spe­cial plane to Cyprus was Sam Lahood, son of Trans­porta­tion Sec­re­tary Ray Lahood. He was the head of the In­ter­na­tional Re­pub­li­can In­sti­tute (IRI) of­fice in Cairo, a well-es­tab­lished pro-democ­racy group.

The IRI called their re­lease “a pos­i­tive de­vel­op­ment” and said it was “hopeful that the charges against its ex­pa­tri­ate and lo­cal Egyp­tian staff will be dis­missed.”

Egypt and the United States have been close al­lies since the late 1970s, soon af­ter the Egyp­tians aban­doned decades of part­ner­ship with the Soviet Union and signed a peace treaty with Is­rael, the first Arab na­tion to do so. In­for­mally, U.S. aid to Egypt is con­tin­gent on Cairo keep­ing the peace with Is­rael.

The raids on the pro-democ­racy groups and charges against them dove­tailed with fre­quent dec­la­ra­tions by the rul­ing gen­er­als, blam­ing con­tin­u­ing un­rest on un­named “for­eign hands.”

Lo­cal ac­tivists ridiculed those state­ments, charg­ing that the mil­i­tary rulers were per­pet­u­at­ing the re­pres­sive tac­tics of the over­thrown regime of Pres­i­dent Hosni Mubarak and de­mand­ing that the gen­er­als hand over power to a civil­ian gov­ern­ment.

The crack­down be­gan in late De­cem­ber, when Egyp­tian se­cu­rity raided of­fices of 10 pro-democ­racy and hu­man rights groups. Work­ers, in­clud­ing 16 Amer­i­cans, were charged with us­ing il­le­gal funds and pro­mot­ing protests against the rul­ing mil­i­tary.

The groups hotly de­nied the charges. They in­sisted their fi­nanc­ing is trans­par­ent, and all their ef­forts to reg­is­ter had been stalled by the Egyp­tian gov­ern­ment.

Re­lease of the for­eign­ers was seen by many in Egypt as a con­ces­sion by the rul­ing mil­i­tary to U.S. pres­sure, de­spite re­peated state­ments by the gen­er­als that Egypt’s ju­di­ciary is in­de­pen­dent.

Spec­u­la­tion about gen­er­als ex­ert­ing pres­sure sur­faced when the three judges hear­ing the case abruptly pulled out Tues­day, cit­ing “un­easi­ness.” Judge Mo­hammed Shukry told the state-run news­pa­per Al-ahram on Thurs­day that there was in­ter­fer­ence in his work, but he did not say who pres­sured him.

Court of­fi­cials said the U.S. posted bail for the seven, as well as nine other Amer­i­cans charged in the case who had al­ready left Egypt. It was set at $300,000 for each of the 16, or $4.8 mil­lion.

Egyp­tian air­port of­fi­cials said that a U.S. mil­i­tary jet landed at Cairo air­port on Wed­nes­day, hours af­ter Egypt an­nounced lift­ing of the travel ban against the for­eign­ers.

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