Egypt acquits US woman, detained for three years on ‘bogus’ human-trafficking charges

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 April, 2017, 2:00pm
UPDATED : Monday, 17 April, 2017, 2:12pm

An Egyptian court has acquitted Aya Hijazi, a dual US-Egyptian citizen who has been held in detention for nearly three years over accusations related to a non-governmental organisation she founded to aid street children.

Authorities arrested Hijazi, her husband and six others in May 2014 on charges of human-trafficking and abusing children that were widely dismissed as bogus by human rights groups and senior US officials, who called for her release.

The arrests came as part of a wider clampdown on civil society especially following the military overthrow of an elected Islamist president in 2013. Prosecutors provided little if any evidence to support the allegations.

US Representative Don Beyer of Virginia voiced his joy and relief for Hijazi’s acquittal on Sunday in a statement.

“This wonderful news was a long time coming,” he said.

Beyer was among several members of Congress who have called on Egypt to release Hijazi. Hillary Clinton reiterated the demand as well in a meeting with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi last September, when she was the Democratic presidential candidate.

US President Donald Trump did not publicly mention the case when he welcomed Sisi to the White House earlier this month, but a senior White House official had said ahead of the meeting that the case would be addressed.

Wade McMullen, an attorney who handles human rights cases before international tribunals, said administration officials had prioritised Hijazi’s case. He also said the case was brought up during Sisi’s meeting with lawmakers in Washington.

McMullen said he believes that international pressure helped call attention to the case, especially that there was “zero evidence” condemning Hijazi and her co-defendants.

There was no reason the case should have been brought in the first place
Wade McMullen, attorney

“There was no reason the case should have been brought in the first place,” he said.

The court’s decision to acquit surprised Hijazi’s mother, Naglaa Hosny, who said “we were expecting the worst and hoping for the best.”

Hijazi’s Egyptian lawyer, Taher Abol Nasr, said Hijazi would likely remain in detention another two to three days while her acquittal is processed. He expects all the defendants to walk free by the end of the week. It was not immediately clear if Hijazi would remain in Egypt.

Hijazi, 30, grew up in Falls Church, Virginia. She received a degree in conflict resolution from George Mason University in 2009, and then returned to her native Egypt.

Along with her husband, Hijazi established a foundation by the name Belady, Arabic for “our nation,” in 2013 with the aim of providing shelter for street children.

A few months later, authorities raided the foundation’s office after a man alleged that his son was missing and blamed it on Belady.

Egyptian authorities have clamped down on civil society, particularly human rights groups and other organisations that receive foreign funding. Such groups played a central role in the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak, and pro-government media often present them as part of a conspiracy to undermine the state.

The authorities also arrested thousands of people in the months following the 2013 overthrow of President Mohammed Mursi, mainly his Islamist supporters but also a number of secular and liberal activists.