7 freed U.S. democracy activists exit Egypt
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.