Update: Egypt to restart NGO trial 8 March, Parliament to probe travel ban lifting

A fresh trial of 43 NGO workers, including 16 Americans who have mostly left the country, will take place in a Cairo criminal court on March 8, state news agency MENA reported Saturday.

The announcement came as Parliament said it would investigate and "hold accountable" those who intervened to allow foreign activists on trial to leave the country.

The judges in the previous trial, which opened last Sunday, resigned two days later without giving reasons.

Cairo Appeals Court head Abdel Moez Ibrahim had said that the controversial decision to lift a travel ban on the foreign defendants was taken after it became apparent the charges were misdemeanors.

But the case has again been referred to a criminal court, MENA reported. The defendants are accused of receiving illicit foreign funds to operate unlicensed NGOs.

Saad al-Katatny said Parliament would summon officials to explain the decision and "hold accountable those responsible for this crime, which represented a blatant intervention in the affairs of Egypt's judiciary."

After months of pressure from Washington, 15 American defendants flew out of Cairo airport on Thursday after posting bail, sparking outrage in Egypt.

"We cannot accept any type of foreign intervention in Egypt's affairs," Katatny told a joint session of parliament and the senate. "This case cannot be ended by a political decision."

The trial, in which the activists were accused of receiving illicit foreign funds to operate unlicensed NGOs, caused a crisis in relations between the US and its close Middle Eastern ally.

Egyptian authorities had insisted they could not intervene in a judicial matter, but the trial began to unravel as the judges stepped aside and the travel ban was lifted.

Katatny also said a special parliamentary session on 11 March will summon the prime minister and other government officials for an inquiry into the circumstances of the ban's lifting.

Critics accused the generals who have ruled the country since Hosni Mubarak was ousted last year of bowing to American pressure.

"It is within Parliament's role to stand up to this crime and to hold all those involved accountable, regardless of who they are and what their positions may be," said Katatny.

"This was a flagrant interference into the judiciary's work," he said to applause at the start of a joint session of the two houses or parliament, convening to draw up an assembly to write the country's constitution.

Katatny questioned how a private US military plane had landed in Cairo's airport before the travel ban had been lifted and why a judge in the case had stepped aside just days before the decision.      

The foreigners were rushed through Cairo airport on to a private plane after having each posted bail of LE2 million (around US$330,000 or 247,000 euros).

The defendants had been charged under the penal code, which could have led to jail sentences of up to five years.

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