American charity worker in Egypt is acquitted after three years in jail

Aya Hijazi, founder of a nonprofit charity that looks after Egyptian street children, sat reading a book inside a holding cell as she faced trial in a courthouse in Cairo, Egypt on March 23.

After almost three years in an Egyptian prison, on Sunday a court in Cairo acquitted an American of all potential charges, including child abuse and human trafficking relating to a shelter for street children she ran.

The courtroom erupted in applause when the judge issued the quick verdict that the 30-year-old Egyptian-US dual citizen Hijazi, along with her seven Egyptian co-defendants, including her husband, would be freed.

Outside the Abdeen courthouse, Hijazi’s visibly elated mother called her son to relay the good news. “It’s a great day,” the mother, Naglaa Hosny, said over the phone, before telling reporters she was “relieved” their ordeal is finally over.

She added that she is proud of her daughter and the other defendants, who throughout 33 months in detention “showed resilience and optimism and didn’t give up on their hopes.”

Hijazi’s lawyer Taher Abu El Nasr said he’s delighted the charges were dropped after “three years in a temporary prison” — a pretrial detention period that exceeds Egypt’s legal two-year limit.

Hijazi and the other defendants were arrested in May 2014 after officials raided the offices of the Belady Foundation, a nonprofit she and her husband founded to care for Egyptian street children. Officials claimed they were investigating numerous allegations against the group, ranging from fraud to holding children captive to torture and sexual abuse. International and local human rights groups say those allegations were all trumped up and that the charity workers were being targeted as part of a government crackdown on civil society and human rights.

The case became a global symbol of the Egyptian government’s repression of aid workers, whom officials have accused of operating on foreign funding to destabilize Egypt. Leading human rights groups — and, in previous years, the White House and Congress — have put vocal pressure on Egypt to free Hijazi.

In a report published last year, legal observers said the case had been marred by “multiple violations of international law committed by Egypt during the trial.”

The case gained attention especially in the United States. Hijazi grew up in Virginia and graduated from the state’s George Mason University. US congressmen took up her cause, and last year President Barack Obama’s administration issued a statement calling for Hijazi’s release.

But since President Donald Trump’s arrival, the White House has gone quiet on the matter — at least publicly. The Trump administration and US lawmakers were apparently involved behind the scenes, according to a lawyer on the case.

“We have been working closely with [US] administration officials at every turn, and the administration has prioritized Aya’s case at the highest levels, including in their engagement with the Egyptians,” said Wade McMullen, a lawyer who’s been leading Hijazi’s legal team in the US and before the United Nations in Geneva.

“The [Trump] administration’s engagement with the Egyptians — along with that of the previous administration [under Obama], members of Congress, advocacy organizations, and others — was critical,” McMullen said.

When asked if anything has changed from Obama to Trump in that regard, McMullen said, “From our point of view there has been consistent engagement throughout both administrations.”

Aya Hijazi and her husband, Mohamed Hassanein, talk inside a holding cell.

Aya Hijazi and her husband, Mohamed Hassanein, talk inside a holding cell.


Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters

But when the judge postponed the verdict in March, just before Egyptian President Abdul Fattah el-Sisi’s meeting with Trump in Washington, Hijazi’s family feared the worst. Some observers had their doubts how far the new US administration's involvement would go.

Trump and Sisi have built a close bond since meeting last September, when Trump was still campaigning. During Sisi’s recent visit, Trump praised him for doing a “fantastic job in a very difficult situation.” He added that the Egyptians “have a great friend and ally in the United States and me.”

It was a dramatic departure from Obama, who temporarily froze military aid to Egypt after Sisi’s bloody crackdown on dissent and never welcomed the Egyptian leader to the White House.

Human rights groups estimate Egypt has detained at least 40,000 political prisoners since Sisi led a military ouster of the previous democratically elected government.

Related: Some Egyptians are comparing Trump to an unlikely, Islamist figure

But the White House said Trump would not bring up human rights while trying to “reboot” bilateral relations with Egypt.

Analysts are already warning about reading too much into the Egyptian-American aid worker's release.

“A variety of spin-doctoring will ensue in all directions” from Sisi and Trump supporters, said H.A. Hellyer, an expert on Egypt who is a senior nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council and the Royal United Services Institute, and who wrote the book “A Revolution Undone.”

“Different sectors will use the verdict of acquittal differently,” Hellyer continued. “Partisans of the Egyptian president will use this verdict to applaud and acclaim the Egyptian judiciary; partisans of the American president will say that this shows a good Trump-Sisi relationship — as opposed to the less warm Obama-Sisi relationship — can have immediate dividends.”

With the case being viewed within the context of US-Egyptian relations, it gained an added political importance that became evident in the small, stuffy courtroom on Sunday, which was packed with international press.

Reporters surrounded petite Hijazi the moment she arrived. Authorities led her to the defendant’s booth — a metal cage — for the hearing, where she stood beside her husband and co-defendant, Mohamed Hassanein. After the verdict, she gave a huge smile and was whisked away before commenting. The other defendants celebrated, still in the cage. As of Monday, all are being processed for release this week.

The Belady Foundation could soon be resurrected, according to what Hassanein reportedly told the courtroom after embracing his wife and fellow co-founder.

Hijazi’s mother Hosny later confirmed that the husband hopes to restart the organization and to continue working with street children in Egypt, despite their ordeal.

But Hosny is not entirely comfortable with that idea. She told reporters she would prefer her daughter go abroad and focus on postgraduate study plans that had stalled after her arrest.

“I do want her to leave [Egypt],” Hosny said, “and get her master’s and PhD.”

Salma Islam reported from Cairo.

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