Foreign NGO workers reach Cyprus after leaving Egypt

Egyptian policemen sit in front of Egyptian employees of several pro-democracy groups in Cairo, Egypt. 26 February 2012 The trial started last week with Egyptian activists appearing in court

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Seventeen foreign democracy activists, including Americans, at the centre of a row between Egypt and the US, have left Cairo after a travel ban was lifted.

A US military plane flew them from Cairo to Cyprus on Thursday. They were expected to fly home on Friday.

The activists - who worked at non-governmental organisations - were on trial for allegedly receiving illegal foreign funding and stirring up unrest.

The ongoing case has led to a major row, risking $1.5bn (£941m) in US aid.

Work on an International Monetary Fund loan that Egypt needs to avoid an economic collapse was also halted for two months, US officials said.

'Deeply concerned'

The foreign NGO workers arrived at a private terminal used by dignitaries at Larnaca airport in Cyprus on Thursday evening. US state department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said they were "en route home".

Cairo airport officials said 17 foreigners were on the flight, including nine Americans, three Serbians, two Germans, a Norwegian and a Palestinian.

Start Quote

The departure of our people doesn't resolve the legal case or the larger issues concerning the NGOs”

End Quote Victoria Nuland US state department

Earlier on Thursday, the head of the Cairo appeals court, Abdul Moiz Ibrahim, confirmed that the travel ban had been removed and that each of the defendants who left Egypt had paid just under $332,000 (£208,000) in bail.

He said that after an appeal by those charged, the case had been switched from a criminal court to one handling misdemeanours, where the maximum penalty was a fine and not imprisonment.

They could still be tried in absentia, along with the other 26 activists from the four NGOs in question - the International Republican Institute (IRI), the National Democratic Institute (NDI), Freedom House and the Konrad-Adenauer Foundation - who were also charged after raids in December.

They were accused of inciting protests against Egypt's ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf), obtaining international funds illegally, and failing to register their organisations with the government.

Ms Nuland said the US would continue to work with Egypt's government to resolve the charges against the groups and their Egyptian staff.

"The departure of our people doesn't resolve the legal case or the larger issues concerning the NGOs," she told reporters in Washington.

"We remain deeply concerned about the prosecution of NGOs in Egypt and the ultimate outcome of the legal process," she added.

The son of US Transport Secretary Ray LaHood, Sam - who headed the IRI in Egypt - was among those who left the country on Thursday.

The elder Mr LaHood said in a statement that he was "pleased" that the court in Cairo had lifted the travel ban, adding: "I'd like to thank everyone for their thoughts and prayers during this time."

The New York Times reported that one American, Robert Becker of the NDI, had chosen to stay in Egypt despite his bail being paid.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said he hoped that the case against the Konrad-Adenauer Foundation's workers would be closed, so that it "can resume its valuable work in Egypt without any hindrances".

'Fatal strike'

US officials told the New York Times that the breakthrough came last week, when the Muslim Brotherhood's political party, which controls parliament, declared its support for the role of NGOs, saying that many had helped expose the "atrocities" of the government of former President Hosni Mubarak, who resigned last year after an uprising.

Egyptian police raid an NGO office in Cairo on 29 December 2011 Computers and documents were seized by Egyptian authorities during December's raids

The Freedom and Justice Party said it wanted to lift immediately the restrictions on non-profit groups, including the ban on foreign funding.

But it also warned that it rejected "any attempts by foreign governments to undermine the ongoing investigations, or influence the legal process".

The activists' trail began on Sunday, but was adjourned until April. Two days later, the panel of judges stood down, citing "embarrassment".

Some prominent politicians called Thursday's decision to remove the travel ban an outrage and demanded an inquiry.

Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Prize-winning former head of the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), called the political interference in the judicial process "a fatal strike to democracy".

The Freedom and Justice Party meanwhile called for an investigation into who authorised the lifting of the travel ban.

Fayza Abul Naga, the Egyptian minister for international co-operation who is believed to have pushed for the investigation into the NGOs, insisted the trial would go ahead once a new judicial panel had been named.

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