The Egyptian authorities intensified their crackdown on foreigners at the weekend, arresting an Australian journalist and an American student and accusing them of trying to bribe civilians to join a strike.
The freelance journalist, Austin Mackell, and the student, Derek Ludovici, were detained with their Egyptian translator Aliya Alwi in the northern city of Mahalla al-Kobra.
A nationwide strike was called on Saturday to mark one year since the toppling of the former President Hosni Mubarak.
Ms Alwi said the car that the three were travelling in, together with the veteran Egyptian activist Kamal el-Fayoumi, was surrounded and attacked by a large group of people in Mahalla. Police intervened to stop the crowd, but the three were arrested after locals reported that they were handing out cash in order to persuade people to join the day of civil disobedience, according to a security official.
Shahira Abouellail, who works for the advocacy group No Military Trials for Civilians and was at the court yesterday as the four answered charges, said the case looked "very weak".
"Most of the testimony appears to have been bought, and one of the witnesses is an eight-year-old boy," she said.
The arrests come amid a sustained campaign of intimidation being waged by the ruling Military Council against foreigners and non-government organisations (NGOs) in Egypt. In December the authorities raided the offices of a number of Cairo-based rights groups.
Judges are now due to prosecute 40 employees of the NGOs – among them 19 Americans – over allegations of licensing irregularities.
The latest developments feed in to the repeated allegations made by senior officials and state media that "foreign hands" are behind the continuing unrest in Egypt.
According to Bahey el-Din Hassan of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, the Military Council's crackdown is worse than anything that took place during the Mubarak years. "The attacks now are against the whole human rights community," he said.
Saturday's arrests came as General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of America Joint Chiefs of Staff, met Egypt's de facto ruler, Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi, to discuss the continuing crackdown on NGOs.