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Pro-democracy groups stand trial in Egypt

The trial of 16 Americans and 27 others opens today at a Cairo courthouse in what critics say is a politically charged case linked to a government crackdown on nonprofit groups that has touched off the deepest crisis in U.S.-Egyptian relations in decades.

A senior U.S. official said Saturday the Obama administration is in "intense discussions" with Egypt to resolve the legal case "in the coming days."

The case, which involves American employees of four U.S.-based pro-democracy groups, has tested one of Washington's most pivotal relationships in the Middle East and prompted U.S. officials to threaten to cut a $1.5 billion annual aid package to Egypt if the issue is not resolved. Egyptian authorities have blasted what they call U.S. meddling in Egypt's legal affairs.

President Obama has urged Egypt's military rulers to drop the investigation, and high-level officials, including Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey and Sen. John McCain, have flown to Cairo to seek a solution.

The U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had raised the matter twice in person with Egypt's foreign minister in the past three days.

There are 43 defendants in the case -- 16 Americans, 16 Egyptians, as well as Germans, Palestinians, Serbs and Jordanians. They have been charged with the illegal use of foreign funds to foment unrest and operating without a license. But the investigation fits into a broader campaign by Egypt's rulers against alleged foreign influence since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak last year.

Rights groups have sharply criticized the investigation into the pro-democracy groups and the charges, saying they are part of an orchestrated effort by Egyptian authorities to silence critics and cripple groups critical of the military's handling of the country's transition to democracy. Egyptian officials counter that the trial has nothing to do with the government and is in the judiciary's hands.

The U.S. State Department says seven of the 16 Americans facing trial have been barred from leaving Egypt by the country's attorney general. Several Americans, including Sam LaHood, son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, sought refuge in the U.S. Embassy.

The Americans work for four U.S.-based groups: the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, Freedom House and a group that trains journalists.

The dispute began in December when Egyptian security forces raided the offices of the pro-democracy groups, seizing documents and computers.

The state-run al-Ahram daily on Saturday reported that 19 Americans, not 16, were facing trial. The newspaper, quoting leaked Egyptian intelligence reports, said some of the computers seized in the raid had sensitive information affecting Egypt's national security.

The newspaper, quoting the intelligence report, charged that LaHood, who heads the IRI office in Egypt, had advised his employees not to disclose their nationalities under any circumstances. The charges against LaHood partly stem from the testimony of Dawlat Sweillam, who allegedly quit her job at IRI because of what she believed were activities that ran counter to Egyptian laws, according to the newspaper.