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Egypt Lifts Travel Ban On US Pro-Democracy Activists

3/1/2012 6:02 AM ET

Egypt on Wednesday lifted a travel ban imposed on seven U.S. nationals accused of attempting to instigate unrest against the north African country's current military rulers, following weeks of intense negotiations with U.S. officials on the issue that had threatened to damage bi-lateral relations.

Egyptian officials said the ban was lifted by the country's Prosecutor-General Abdel-Maguid Mahmoud on the recommendation of the judge investigating the case. Nevertheless, they added that the charges against the Americans were not dropped.

Although U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Wednesday that she was unable to confirm whether the travel ban on the Americans was lifted, she had stated earlier that she expected the issue to be resolved in the "very near future."

The seven Americans allowed to leave Egypt included the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. They were among 43 foreign and local pro-democracy activists detained in connection with the case. The 12 other Americans in the group have already left Egypt.

Their trial opened on Sunday, with none of the 16 accused Americans present at the hearing. They were accused of operating non-governmental organizations without a license and using millions of dollars received illegally from abroad to foment unrest in the country.

Soon after the trial opened, it was adjourned to April 26. Moreover, three presiding judges recused themselves from the case on Tuesday, citing "uneasiness." Their quitting the bench is seen as clear sign that the case might be dropped soon.

The United States wants Egypt to drop the case against the 19 U.S. nationals, and threatened earlier to withhold both $1.3 billion in military aid and about $250 million in economic aid Washington provides Cairo on an yearly basis if the issue is not resolved soon.

Despite the U.S. threat, investigating judges recommended earlier this month that the 19 Americans and 24 others be put on trial before a criminal court to face charges of using illegal foreign funds to foment trouble in the country.

The move prompted three leading U.S. Senators -- John McCain, Kelly Ayotte and Joe Lieberman -- to warn that it could lead to "disastrous" breakdown in bilateral relations. The three Senators also cautioned that anti-U.S. elements within the Egyptian government were "exacerbating tensions and inflaming public opinion in order to advance a narrow political agenda."

Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has been ruling the country ever since former President Hosni Mubarak was forced to step down in February 2011, following a popular unrest against his 30-year rule. Many have dismissed the case against the pro-democracy activists as part of the military's efforts to silence its critics.

by RTT Staff Writer

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