Egypt court frees American aid worker

Egypt | Authorities arrested Aya Hijazi and seven others in 2014
by Onize Ohikere
Posted 4/17/17, 11:16 am

An Egyptian court Sunday acquitted Egyptian-American aid worker Aya Hijazi and six others on sexual abuse and child trafficking charges after they were detained for nearly three years. The case drew international attention to Egypt’s clampdown on dissenters.

Hijazi and her husband, Mohamed Hassanein, founded Belady, a nonprofit that cares for street children in Egypt’s capital, Cairo. Egyptian authorities raided the nonprofit in May 2014 and arrested the couple along with six other people. They faced accusations of trafficking and abusing the children under their care that carried a possible life sentence.

The Cairo courtroom erupted in cheers and the detainees in the defendant’s cage hugged one another following the acquittal.  Outside the courtroom, family members waited with joy. Naglaa Hosny, Hijazi’s mother, told The New York Times the defendants graduated from the ordeal with honors.

“They didn’t give up on their dream of there being no more street children,” Hosny said. “It was worth it for their cause.”

Hijazi, who has dual American and Egyptian citizenship, grew up in Falls Church, Va., and attended George Mason University. She moved to Egypt after graduating in 2009. Following the court hearing, Hijazi and her husband said they planned to resume their work at Belady.

“Humanity became free, and the dream doesn’t die,” Hijazi said. “On the contrary, it becomes stronger.”

Human Rights Watch had described the case as “a travesty of justice” that lacked evidence. The group said the prosecution’s sexual assault allegation was based on a forensic expert’s report. But the report revealed no evidence of coerced sexual activity during the time Hijazi cared for the children. The court also denied the defendants’ bail requests and did not allow them to meet privately with lawyers.

Egypt’s government has arrested thousands of dissenters since the 2013 uprising that led to the overthrow of former President Mohamed Morsi. Detainees often face unfair trials and arbitrary imprisonment. Hijazi and the other seven defendants were detained for nearly three years despite the legal two-year pretrial detention limit.

The release comes after U.S. President Donald Trump met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi earlier this month. Wade McMullen, the head of Hijazi’s U.S. legal team, told The Guardian that the Trump administration was engaged in Hijazi’s case. He said some members of Congress pressured al-Sisi over the case, and some top White House advisers played a critical role interacting with the Egyptian government.

“Their engagement was indeed key to helping ensure space for the judge to issue his acquittal free from the influence of larger political forces,” McMullen said.

Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., who had also fought for Hijazi’s release, welcomed the acquittal.

“This wonderful news was a long time coming,” Beyer said in a statement. “Even as we clasp our hands in thanks for Aya’s release, we remember those who still suffer unjust imprisonment in Egypt and elsewhere.”

Onize Ohikere

Onize is a reporter for WORLD Digital based in Abuja, Nigeria.

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