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Implications for Rights and Freedoms

Nongovernmental Organizations Case (Phase 1)

Court / Presiding Judge

First Review: Cairo Criminal Court/Judge Makram Awad
Second Review: Cairo Criminal Court/Judge Mohamed El Feky

Procedural History

On February 28, 2012, the three judges initially handling the case recused themselves, stating that the “court felt uneasiness." On March 1, 2012, the United States posted bail for seven Americans and nine others who had left the country before a travel ban was imposed. On June 4, 2013, the court issued its verdict. On April 5, 2018, the Court of Cassation ordered a retrial. On December 20, 2018, the Cairo Criminal Court issued its final verdict.


Upon first review, the court convicted 43 NGO workers of operating without a license and receiving foreign funding. Twenty-seven defendants, sentenced in absentia, received five-year prison sentences. Eleven defendants received one-year suspended sentences and five other defendants received two-year sentences. The judge also ruled that the NGOs that employed the defendants should be closed. Upon second review, the Court of Cassation overturned the sentences of 16 of the original defendants and ordered a retrial. In the final review phase, the Cairo Criminal Court acquitted all of the defendants in the case.

Summary of Reasoning

The case dates to December 2011, when police conducted armed raids on 17 NGO offices, detaining employees and seizing equipment. Forty-three NGO workers from a number of organizations were eventually put on trial for operating illegally in Egypt. Upon first review, the NGO workers were sentenced under both the former NGO Law and various provisions of the Penal Code. Upon retrial, all defendants were ultimately acquitted of the charges of operating without a license and illegally receiving foreign funding; the court iterated: “foreign funding is not a criminal act per the law.”

Anecdotal Notes

When the initial verdict was issued, the U.S. issued a statement saying that it was “deeply concerned" about the result of “a politically motivated trial." Human Rights Watch, Human Rights First, and many other organizations condemned the sentences as well. Both the resolution of this case and amending the NGO Law have been key areas of engagement between the Egyptian and U.S. governments. Although this "first phase" of the case has been resolved, a “second phase" of this case against domestic Egyptian NGOs is currently being pursued by authorities as well.

Legal & Judicial Implications

This case reveals how Egypt’s former NGO law, murky in its language and violative in its principles, was in need of serious reform. Both of the laws approved in the time since (the 2017 NGO Law and the 2019 draft NGO Law) further significant restrictions on civil society as well. Although the acquittal of all defendants in this "first phase" of the case is positive because it brings about an unequivocal acquittal for the original defendants of the case and serves as a welcome step toward recognizing the legality of civil society work in the country, the resolution of this "first phase" does not indicate an overall easing of restrictions or a deescalation of the crackdown on civil society in Egypt.