Egypt trial on U.S. democracy activists set for February 26

CAIRO Sat Feb 18, 2012 7:16am EST

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CAIRO (Reuters) - An Egyptian court will start the trial on February 26 of activists from mostly American civil society groups accused of working illegally in Egypt, in a case which has strained U.S.-Egyptian ties.

A judicial source told Reuters that the 43 accused, including around 20 Americans, would go on trial next Sunday, charged with working in the country without proper legal registration.

The state new agency MENA said the hearing would take place at North Cairo Criminal Court.

Investigators swooped down on the offices of civil society groups on December 29, confiscating computers and other equipment and seizing cash and documents.

The American defendants have been banned from leaving Egypt and some have taken refuge in the U.S. embassy. Among those accused is Sam LaHood, Egypt director of the International Republican Institute and the son of the U.S. transportation secretary.

"The date of the first hearing in the case of foreign funding involving foreign civil society organizations has been set for February 26," a judicial source told Reuters.

The American groups raided were the IRI and the National Democratic Institute, both democracy-building groups loosely affiliated with the U.S. political parties, as well as the human rights group Freedom House, and the International Center for Journalists.

Egyptian Minister of Planning Faiza Abul Naga has linked U.S. funding of civil society initiatives to an American plot to undermine Egypt. The democracy groups' leaders denied their activists had done anything improper or illegal.

The spat is one of the worst in more than 30 years of close U.S.-Egyptian ties and has complicated Washington's efforts to establish relations with the military council that took power from Hosni Mubarak after his overthrow in a popular revolt a year ago.

A delegation of U.S. lawmakers is scheduled to arrive to Egypt Monday headed by Senator John McCain who has said he hoped Egyptian officials understood the situation was unacceptable to the United States.

(Reporting by Marwa Awad: Writing by Shaimaa Fayed)

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