Egyptian official media reported Sunday that 40 people, including at least 19 Americans, have been referred to trial on charges they illegally provided foreign funding to non-governmental organizations in the country.
Egyptian State TV and the state-fund Al Ahram newspaper reported that investigators ordered Egyptian and American activists to Cairo Criminal Court for prosecution. Those being referred for trial are also banned from traveling. The move is part of an investigation into whether pro-democracy groups and other organizations are operating in Egypt illegally and spurring protests.
Negad El Borei, a lawyer for several of the organizations under investigation, said the activists include 19 Americans, 2 Germans, 5 Serbs, 3 Arabs and 14 Egyptians. None of the defendants were officially notified, and government offices were closing in Cairo when the announcement was made.
At least six Americans, including Sam LaHood, the son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, have been prevented from leaving Egypt since late January. Some of the Americans are being sheltered at the U.S. embassy in Cairo. Sam LaHood heads the Egypt office of the Washington-based International Republican Institute.
A statement from the IRI said the reports reflect "escalating attacks against international and Egyptian democracy organizations."
A date has yet to be set for the start of the trial.
The referral is the latest development in a long-running row between Washington and Cairo over an Egyptian crackdown on U.S.-funded groups promoting democracy and human rights.
On Saturday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned Egypt's foreign minister that failure to resolve the dispute may lead to the loss of American aid. Washington is due to give Egypt $1.3 billion in military assistance and $250 million in economic aid in 2012. Foreign Minister Mohammed Amr rejected U.S. complaints, saying the executive branch has nothing to do with the investigation.
The Egyptian investigation is closely intertwined with Egypt's political turmoil since the ouster nearly a year ago of Hosni Mubarak, a close U.S. ally who ruled Egypt for nearly 30 years. The generals who took power after Mubarak's fall have accused "foreign hands" of being behind protests against their rule and frequently depict the protesters as receiving foreign funds in a plot to destabilize the country.
Already, Egyptian authorities are preventing at least six Americans and four Europeans from leaving the country, citing a probe opened last month when heavily armed security forces raided the offices of 17 pro-democracy and rights groups. Egyptian officials have defended the raid as part of a legitimate investigation into the groups' work and funding.
NPR Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson contributed to this report, which includes material from the Associated Press