US State Secretary Kerry slams 'politically-motivated' Egypt trial

WASHINGTON (AFP) - US Secretary of State John Kerry voiced concern on Tuesday about the sentences handed down by a Cairo court on 43 Egyptian and foreign NGO workers, denouncing it as a "politically-motivated" trial.

"This decision runs contrary to the universal principle of freedom of association and is incompatible with the transition to democracy," Mr Kerry said in a statement after the court ordered jail terms of between one to five years.

"The United States is deeply concerned by the guilty verdicts and sentences, including the suspended sentences, handed down by an Egyptian court today against 43 NGO representatives in what was a politically-motivated trial."

The workers were put on trial after a series of 2011 raids on the offices of foreign NGOs, many which had operated without licenses under ousted president Hosni Mubarak, but which the new authorities deemed had received illicit funds.

The criminal court sentenced 27 defendants in absentia to five years.

Five defendants who were present in the country, including one American, were sentenced to two years behind bars and ordered to pay a fine of 1,000 Egyptian pounds (S$180). The remaining 11 were each given one-year suspended sentences.

The decision to close the offices of the non-governmental organizations "contradicts the government of Egypt's commitments to support the role of civil society as a fundamental actor in a democracy," Mr Kerry said.

"Civic groups and international NGOs play a legitimate role in any democracy and are critical to advancing freedoms... and acting as appropriate checks on the government," the top US diplomat insisted in his sharply-worded statement.

"I urge the government of Egypt to work with civic groups as they respond to the Egyptian people's aspirations for democracy as guaranteed in Egypt's new constitution."

Last year's crackdown led to a crisis in relations between Egypt and Washington, which Cairo tried to defuse by allowing some activists to leave the country, including Sam LaHood, the son of US transport secretary Ray LaHood.

US media reports said LaHood was among those given a suspended five-year sentence.