All three judges responsible for adjudicating the criminal prosecution of 43 non-governmental organization (NGO) employees withdrew from the case on Tuesday. It is not clear why the judges chose to withdraw [AP report], but Egyptian lawyer and rights activist Ahmed Seif al-Islam suggested it could be a result of political pressure. The case, tried in a Cairo Criminal Court, involves individuals that have been charged with promoting democracy [JURIST report] in Egypt without proper documentation and through the use of illegal funds. The suspects, including 16 Americans, 27 other foreigners and Egyptians, are employees of NGOs that advocate democracy in Egypt. The case has strained Egypt's relationship with the US. Earlier this month, US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice [official profile] called on Egypt to release the suspects [Politico report], and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton [official profile] threatened to reconsider the $1.3 billion in annual aid [Reuters report] given to Egypt. On Wednesday, however, Clinton said she believed the issue would be resolved in the near future [Reuters report]. An Egyptian court official said Tuesday that new judges will be assigned to try the NGO case. If convicted, the suspects face up to five years in prison.
The Egyptian government has faced criticism recently for its persecution of NGO employees. On Sunday, A Cairo Criminal Court judge adjourned the trial until April [JURIST report] following the first day of the trial. None of the defendants from America or Europe was present for the first day of trial. In an interview [text], Clinton said the US is "working with the highest levels of the existing Egyptian authorities and ... hoping to get this resolved." Earlier this month, Egyptian investigative judges referred the NGO case to a criminal court in Cairo [JURIST report]. In January, the Egyptian government denied cracking down on NGOs [JURIST report] amid accusations by various human rights groups that Egypt was trying to silence the military council's vocal opposition. In December the Egyptian government agreed to cease its raids of NGOs [JURIST report], after the US expressed concern about Egypt's approach toward NGO activity. Egyptian police raided the offices of 17 pro-democracy and human rights groups [Reuters report] in December, citing foreign funding as a main concern.