Left Out in the Cold

U.S. aid worker in Egypt sentenced to two years in prison

Robert Becker leaves the defendants' cage after a hearing in the trial of employees of nonprofit groups in Egypt / AP

Robert Becker leaves the defendants' cage after a hearing in the trial of employees of nonprofit groups in Egypt / AP

BY:  

An American aid worker on trial in Egypt was sentenced to two years in prison on Tuesday after being found guilty of illegally promoting democracy.

More than 18 months after he was arrested at gunpoint by Egyptian authorities and placed on trial for the crime of promoting democracy, Robert Becker will likely appeal the decision.

The 44-year-old native of Washington, D.C., was arrested in December 2011 along with 43 others following a high-profile raid on foreign nonprofit organizations operating in Egypt.

Though the raid was carried out under former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the now-ruling Muslim Brotherhood has allowed the proceeding to continue.

Becker was one of six Americans charged with two felony counts of operating what Egyptian prosecutors argue was an illegally funded pro-democracy nonprofit group.

The other Americans sought sanctuary in the U.S. embassy and fled Egypt with the help of the State Department in March 2012, when a travel ban on the accused was lifted.

However, Becker did not seek refuge and stayed behind. He has not had formal contact with any U.S. officials “since the plane took off” last year.

Though he risked being imprisoned in a hostile land, Becker said he could not abandon his Egyptian colleagues.

“The idea of flying away and leaving them to fend for themselves was not something in my DNA,” Becker told the Washington Free Beacon in an interview last month ahead of the verdict.

He could not be reached for comment following Tuesday’s decision.

Freedom House, one of the organizations also raided in 2011, condemned the decision.

“This whole case was a disgrace from the very beginning, and the verdict makes a mockery of the Egyptian judicial process,” said Freedom House President David Kramer in a statement. “It is motivated purely by corrupt and anti-democratic behavior and a determination to shut down civil society. None of those indicted did anything wrong.”

The other U.S. citizens—including the son of Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood—were also found guilty and sentenced in absentia to five years in prison, according to Reuters.

Becker weathered the storm without help from the U.S. government or any of its embassy officials in Cairo.

“I was under intense pressure to get on the plane which I didn’t do for the simple fact there were all these plans to get the foreign nationals away from the court system but not the Egyptians,” Becker explained. “It’s just loyalty.”

“Regardless of the verdict, we anticipate appeals,” Becker wrote on his personal blog Monday. “If found not guilty, the prosecution will no doubt appeal and the case could linger for years. Obviously our lawyers will appeal should the ruling go against us.”

Becker, a longtime political insider and former Democratic operative, lost the support of the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the nonprofit organization he was working for.

NDI, which paid around $330,000 in bail, fired Becker after he decided to remain in Egypt.

“Robert Becker has charted his own course for his own reasons,” Les Campbell, head of NDI’s Middle East programs, told the Free Beacon. “NDI was no longer able to work in the country so we could no longer support an expat employee there—it’s that simple.”

NDI continues to pay legal fees for its former Egyptian employees who are on trial and cannot leave the country.

After spending more than 14 court hearings locked behind a metal cage in an Egyptian courtroom, Becker says he does not regret the decision to stay.

“As of now there are 15 people that are in the dock in the cage,” he said, rattling off the names of 13 Egyptians, one German, “and me.”

“I don’t hold any grudges on it,” he added. “Everyone had decisions to make. We were ordered to go, I defied the order.”

Since ushering the remaining Americans out of the country, the Obama administration has remained virtually silent about the case, hesitant to rehash an episode that quickly became a sore point in U.S.-Egyptian relations.

“The U.S. government’s been silent for a year,” Becker said. “They made noise in the beginning.”

Becker has become a headache for the State Department, which pushed hard behind the scenes to ensure that no Americans would appear in court.

“I think they just want this to quietly go away and fortunately it won’t go away because it’s bigger than just me,” Becker said. The State Department did not return multiple requests for comment.

The State Department’s silence and refusal to meet with Becker has angered some veteran foreign policy hands in D.C.

“It is amazing to me that an American citizen is on trial in Egypt, and the U.S. ambassador hasn’t even bothered to meet with him,” said one insider acquainted with the Egyptian government.

“It frankly seems cold, and given Becker’s brave stand in support of democracy in Egypt, and his unwillingness to leave his fellow Egyptian democracy workers behind, he deserves far better treatment from American officials in Cairo,” said the source.

U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson is reportedly in the running to become the administration’s next assistant secretary of state for near east affairs, which could explain her hesitance to ruffle feather on Becker’s behalf, sources said.

Becker said that there was little the U.S. government could do following his decision to stay in Egypt.

“The safe route would have been to leave the country and have walked away from it,” he said. “The moral side is, how dare we come to Egypt spending million of dollars of tax payer money promoting human rights and when we get dinged with [charges], the instinct is to run and be quiet and go away. There are some things in life worth fighting for.”

The trial has exposed major flaws in the U.S. government’s approach to Egypt, Becker said.

“Do I wish when the U.S. spoke on Egypt they would fight for civil society? Yeah I do,” he said. “We lack consistency with Egypt and sometimes seem to forget the Egyptians can hear us.”

Becker said that, for better or worse, he decided to place his trust in the Egyptian court system, which has a history of dishonesty and corruption.

“From the very beginning I’ve placed trust in the system and based on everything I’ve witnessed, its’ been a pretty straightforward trial,” he said in the interview before the verdict was delivered.

Rep. Wolf slammed the Egyptian court’s decision in a statement on the House floor Tuesday afternoon.

“Prior to their closure, these organizations carried out important and legitimate programs to help support citizen participation in the Egyptian transition process—the very essence of democracy and America’s greatest export,” Wolf said. “I was in Egypt in February and heard first-hand that the Egyptian government’s handling of this case is symptomatic of a broader crack-down on civil society.”

“This was a sham trial from the start,” Wolf said.


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