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Egypt Acquits Democracy Workers in Case That Strained U.S. Ties

CAIRO — An Egyptian court acquitted 41 American, European and Egyptian employees of groups that promoted democracy and media freedom on Thursday, bringing an end to a seven-year case that was a thorn in relations with the United States and had become emblematic of the official backlash against civil society following the Arab Spring protests of 2011.

The defendants were convicted in 2013 on administrative charges relating to financing and official permits that nonetheless carried a criminal penalty. Some received sentences of five years, angering the government in Washington and becoming a source of tension with both the Obama and Trump administrations. Among the groups affected were the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, a German organization.

Many of those convicted were sentenced in absentia after fleeing Egypt. None served any jail time. But the case underscored official Egyptian sensitivity, and what many viewed as paranoia, about the role of foreign organizations at a delicate moment following the upheaval of the Arab Spring.

“After six years of interrogations, court cases, cages, lawyers, and looking over my shoulder I can finally say: it’s over,” Hafsa Halawa, one of those acquitted, wrote on Twitter.

By then, many of the accused had already fled Egypt, and the case became a source of tension between Washington and Cairo.

Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, who died in August, campaigned vociferously to have the verdict overturned. The case resurfaced in August 2017 when Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson froze $290 million in aid to Egypt, citing a range of concerns that included rights abuses and the crackdown on civil society.

Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany also exerted pressure on Mr. Sisi as part an effort to lift a ban on the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Egypt.

In December 2017, four months after American aid was suspended, an Egyptian court reopened Case 173, as it is officially known, and in April it was referred to a retrial. Welcoming Thursday’s verdict, Sam LaHood said he hoped it would be “the first step reversing the damage done by Case 173 to Egypt and her great people.”

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