The Obama administration is petitioning Interpol to deny Egypt’s request for the arrest of American and other nongovernmental workers accused of illegally operating democracy programs and stirring unrest, in a push to prevent further escalation of the planned prosecution that sparked the worst crisis in U.S.-Egypt relations in three decades.
According to people familiar with the case, State Department counsel Harold Koh and Justice Department Deputy Assistant Attorney General Bruce Swartz are trying to convince Interpol to dismiss as “politically motivated” Egypt’s request for worldwide notices seeking the arrest of some personnel from several nongovernmental organizations that receive U.S. funding.
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Cairo’s continued plans to prosecute the NGO workers is a sharp rebuke to the U.S., which has been pressing Egypt to drop the criminal charges against 43 nongovernmental workers—17 of them Americans—from the Washington-based National Democratic Institute, International Republican Institute, Freedom House, and International Center for Journalists.
Tensions between Washington and Cairo eased on March 1 when seven American democracy workers were allowed to leave Egypt after their institutions paid some $5 million in “bail” to lift the travel ban against them. These Americans—including IRI’s Sam LaHood, son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood—still face charges in a trial slated to resume on Tuesday, but are not currently wanted for arrest in Egypt.
Shortly after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton signed off on military aid to Cairo, Egypt asked Interpol to issue so-called red notices for other nongovernmental workers who were not in Egypt at the time, or in some cases, who never worked there at all. As many as 10 of them are Americans. Among them are prominent figures in Washington, like Freedom House’s Charles Dunne, a former U.S. diplomat who also served on the National Security Council under President George W. Bush.
If convicted, they could face a hefty financial penalty and up to five years in an Egyptian prison.
The State and Justice departments, as well as Interpol headquarters in France and its bureau in Washington, all declined to comment on Egypt’s request for the red notices, which are usually viewed as precursors to filing extradition papers. “The United States is making known in every relevant forum, and before every relevant agency, its objection to these politically motivated trials in Egypt,” State Department spokesman Edgar Vasquez told National Journal.
Successfully convincing Interpol that Egypt’s prosecution is politically motivated would prevent the organization from issuing the red notices, because its constitution mandates neutrality and strictly forbids it to undertake any intervention in matters of “political, military, religious or racial character.”
The United States, unlike many of the 190 countries participating in the international police organization, is not obligated to arrest anyone on its soil subject to a red notice because it does not view this as “probable cause” for an arrest warrant, according to Douglas McNabb, a Washington-based international criminal lawyer. Individuals wanted under red notices can appeal Interpol’s decision in a process that can take months or even years, said McNabb, who specializes in Interpol notice removal and international extradition.
“It’s serious when someone files a red notice,” McNabb told NJ. “It’s used to try and locate an individual with a view of later having them put in extradition proceedings.” Those who are listed under Interpol’s red notices are effectively “landlocked,” McNabb said, because they are likely to be arrested if they travel to other countries.
There may be even bigger legal battles ahead for the U.S. government if Egypt chooses to follow up with extradition requests. In that case, the U.S. would have to abide by its extradition treaty with Cairo and arrest the suspects, McNabb said. A U.S. judge would then decide whether the individual is extraditable or not. However, the U.S. government would be forced into the uncomfortable position of having to represent Egypt in court-- against the American defendants it considers to be wrongly accused of violating Egypt's highly restrictive laws on civil society.
The Egyptians’ acceleration in its planned prosecution of the pro-democracy workers is sure to anger U.S. lawmakers and activists who were concerned Cairo might be emboldened by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s recent decision to waive new congressional conditions on the package of $1.3 billion in military aid.
“My worry is the [Egyptians] are going to feel they now have a green light to prosecute to the fullest extent of the law,” Dunne told National Journal, referring to Clinton’s decision to waive restrictions that would have required her to certify Cairo was respecting the transition to democracy, and implementing policies to protect due process of law and freedom of expression, association, and religion.
Fayza Abul Naga, the Egyptian minister who coordinates foreign aid, has for years tried to clamp down on these NGOs and spearheaded the recent investigation of what she called their “illegal” activities. Naga, in a March 9 op-ed in the Washington Post, blasted Washington’s decision to redirect some funds to programs run by local and American civil society groups to aid the democratic transition in Egypt after Hosni Mubarak’s ouster.
IRI’s Egypt country director Sam LaHood, has dismissed as “malarkey” the claims by Naga, who is a holdover from Mubarak’s government.
“She’s alleged that the U.S. government is actively trying to sow unrest, trying to divide Egypt, and undermine the revolution,” LaHood told National Journal upon returning to Washington last month. “For a minister of another country to allege those things in a court of law and in public seems outrageous, and she points to our organizations as tools that are doing that.”
Despite the politicized pall over the case, the NGO workers face technical charges of managing an unregistered international organization. “They sound like the things you might get a $20 ticket for-- but are being prosecuted as criminal charges,” Dunne said. The Egyptian government had for years left pending the applications of some groups Washington considers most critical to democracy programs in the country-- like those of IRI and NDI-- even as it tacitly allowed them to operate.
Dunne, who has no plans to return to Egypt, said his lawyers plan to argue Freedom House did “nothing wrong” in court next week. The group had submitted its registration papers just before the late December raid in which the Egyptian authorities seized all their equipment and paperwork and sealed the offices. IRI and NDI had been granted permission to monitor the parliamentary elections just before Egyptian prosecutors raided their bureaus, backed by police and military forces carrying machine guns.
Freedom House’s Sherif Mansour, an Egyptian who just received American citizenship days ago, has not been in Egypt since July and was surprised to find out about the charges against him through a news conference in February. “They one-sidedly declared me a fugitive,” said Mansour, who like Dunne still hasn’t seen any official documents proving he is actually being charged with crimes in Egypt.
“That shows how political this case is,” Mansour said. “…It is basically meant to indict people in front of the media and publish their image from the start."
Meanwhile, the prosecution has effectively sidelined some U.S.-funded democracy programs in the Egypt. “Our ability to operate as a fully functioning operation is nonexistent at the moment,” Dunne said. With Egypt investigating as many as 400 organizations in the country, Dunne said, “there’s a terrible concern… about the chilling effect on Egyptian civil society.”