Egypt: Judges withdraw from trial of 16 Americans

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CAIRO — All three judges on Tuesday pulled out of Egypt's trial of 43 pro-democracy workers, including 16 Americans, according to a court official, throwing into question the case that has ripped U.S.-Egypt relations.

The defendants are charged with using illegal foreign funds to foment unrest that has roiled Egypt over the past year. The pro-democracy groups and the U.S. flatly deny the charges, and U.S. officials have hinted that foreign aid to Egypt is in jeopardy.

Lead Judge Mohammed Shoukry said Tuesday that “the court felt uneasiness” in handling the case, according to the court official. He did not elaborate.

The official said new judges will be assigned to the case, on condition of anonymity.

The trial has proceeded only as far as its opening session, and it would need to be restarted with a new panel of judges. Coupled with indications that the two countries are trying to find an acceptable resolution to the crisis, it was seen possible that the trial might be called off at some point.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told two Senate panels on Tuesday that the United States and Egypt are “in very intensive discussions about finding a solution.”

The affair began in December when Egyptian security raided 17 offices of 10 pro-democracy and human rights groups, confiscating documents and equipment. It led to charges that the groups have financed protests over the past year with illegally obtained funds and have failed to register with the government as required.

The groups insist their financing is transparent, and all their efforts to register have been stalled by the Egyptian government.

The charges dovetail with constant pronouncements from Egypt's military rulers that protests against their rule are directed by unnamed, dark foreign forces, a claim that is ridiculed by Egyptian activists.

Furious over the charges and travel bans against civil society workers, the United States has threatened to cut off aid to Egypt, putting at risk $1.3 billion in military aid this year and another $250 million in economic assistance. Egyptian officials claim the matter is entirely in the hands of the judiciary, and many of them view the U.S. threat as unacceptable meddling.

Printed on Wednesday, February 29, 2012 as: Egyptian judges recuse selves from heated non-profit trial