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16 Americans Among Nonprofit Workers Convicted In Egypt

Sixteen Americans were among 43 people convicted in Egypt on Tuesday for what the government there has said was illegal interference in the nation's affairs.

Those judged guilty all worked for foreign non-governmental organizations, including two U.S. groups that have tried to promote democracy in Egypt. The government of President Mohammed Morsi basically accused them of trying to undermine that regime by encouraging unrest.

From Cairo, NPR's Leila Faidel reports that 15 of the Americans were convicted in absentia. They include Sam LaHood, the son of outgoing Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. The 16th American, Robert Becker, "refused to leave Egypt in solidarity with the Egyptian employees who faced charges," she tells our Newscast Desk. He works for the National Democratic Institute.

Becker has been sentenced to two years in prison. Leila tells us he plans to appeal the conviction. It is not known yet whether he will remain free in the meantime.

As we reported in March 2012, the Americans charged with interference denied the accusations. They also said that another charge — that they were in the country illegally — was unfair because the Americans had repeatedly tried to obtain the required clearances but had been ignored by the government.

According to Leila, 27 of the defendants — including the 15 Americans other than Becker — have been "sentenced to five years in absentia." Along with Becker, four other defendants have been given two-year prison sentences. Eleven Egyptians, she reports, got "one-year suspended sentences."

All the defendants were fined 1,000 Egyptian pounds each (about $143). Their NGOs will be closed.

The Associated Press notes that:

"[Former President Hosni] Mubarak, the military rulers who followed him, and now Morsi's government have all been at odds with nonprofits over both their activities and their funding. Last week, the New York-based Human Rights Watch and 40 Egyptian rights groups said an Egyptian draft law regulating non-governmental organizations would restrict the funding and operation of independent groups.

"The contentious bill, proposed by Morsi and shortly to be debated by the country's interim legislature, would allow the state to control nonprofits' activities as well as their domestic and international funding, HRW said. The current form of the bill is a serious regression from earlier versions, it added.

"In a joint statement, the 40 Egyptian rights groups accused Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and its political arm of seeking to curb the freedom of rights groups through legal restrictions. ... They also expressed fears foreign nonprofits would be treated with hostility and that vaguely worded legislation would hinder operations or the issuance of work permits."

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