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Egypt lifts travel bans on 7 US pro-democracy workers

CAIRO -- Egypt has lifted a travel ban on seven Americans charged with fomenting unrest by working for illegally funded pro-democracy groups, signaling an end to the worst crisis in Egypt-U.S. relations in 30 years.

The clash put US$1.5 billion in annual American aid to Egypt at risk and sparked intense behind-the-scenes negotiations between the two countries to find a way out.

On Wednesday, defense lawyer Tharwat Abdel-Shaheed said the seven Americans, including the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, could only leave the country if they post bail of 2 million Egyptian pounds (about US$300,000). They have also signed pledges to attend their next hearing.

“The ban was lifted on humanitarian grounds, but the bail is way too high,” Abdel-Shaheed, who represents some of the American defendants, told The Associated Press.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the United States was encouraged by reports the ban was lifted but added she had no confirmation.

Egyptian officials said the travel ban was lifted by the country's top prosecutor at the recommendation of the case's investigating judge. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case.

It was not immediately clear whether the charges against the Americans would be dropped.

But even before the ban was lifted, there were signs the case was dissolving under intense U.S. pressure. The trial of more than 40 U.S. and foreign aid workers opened on Sunday and was adjourned until late April. The court's three judges excused themselves from the case on Tuesday, citing “uneasiness.”

Only the Egyptian defendants attended Sunday's hearing, and the judge gave no instructions to police to ensure the American and other foreign defendants attend the next hearing.

The workers were charged following a December raid by Egyptian security of offices of 10 nonprofit pro-democracy and human rights groups, confiscating documents and equipment. The groups were accused of financing protests over the past year with illegally obtained funds and failing to register with the government as required.

The groups insist their financing is transparent, and all their efforts to register have been stalled by the Egyptian government.

The seven Americans who were banned from leaving are among 16 Americans on trial in the case. The other Americans had already left the country before charges were filed against them. Twenty-seven others are on trial, including 16 Egyptians as well as German, Palestinian, Serbian and Jordanian citizens. The travel ban on the non-American foreigners in the case has also been lifted if bail is posted.

The defendants faced charges of using illegally obtained funds to incite protests against the military rulers. They worked for a variety of democracy-promoting organizations, including four U.S. groups.

The heavily publicized case of the four U.S. pro-democracy groups has been linked to the turmoil roiling Egypt since an 18-day popular uprising forced Hosni Mubarak to step down in February last year after three decades in power.

Rights activists have sharply criticized the investigation into the civil society groups and the charges against the workers. They say it is part of an orchestrated effort by the ruling generals to silence critics and cripple organizations critical of their handling of what was supposed to be a transition to democracy.

The charges dovetail with constant pronouncements from the military that protests against their rule are directed by unnamed, dark foreign forces, a claim that is ridiculed by Egyptian activists. Still, the case resonated among many Egyptians who often suspect foreigners, particularly from the West, of meddling in Egypt's affairs.

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