Almost three years of pre-trial detention and uncertainty came to an abrupt end for Aya Hijazi and her co-defendants on Sunday morning, with one word: “acquittal”.
The US citizen and her six co-defendants had waited 1,079 days in detention to learn their fate, accused of child sex trafficking in a case whose outcome appeared heavily influenced by Egypt’s newfound warm relations with the US.
Cheers and shouts overtook the smoky Cairo courtroom, as the white-clothed detainees in the defendants’ cage hugged one another in jubilation. Hijazi and her husband, Mohammed Hassanein, embraced, grinning.
All had faced life in prison over charges relating to their work at the Belady Foundation, a charity aiding Cairo street children run by Hijazi and Hassanein.
Hijazi, Hassanein and six others were arrested in May 2014 following a raid on the Belady office in Cairo. It would be four months before their charges were disclosed, including sexual exploitation of children, using children for protests and human trafficking.
A forensic report by the Egyptian public prosecutor found no evidence of sexual abuse after examining children cared for by the Belady Foundation, and legal observers reported how Hijazi’s trial violated Egypt’s own constitution. Although one defendant was released on medical grounds, the remaining defendants were left behind bars in a case that many branded as political.
Pre-trial detention beyond two years is commonplace in Egypt, despite being illegal under Egyptian law.
While many of Hijazi’s supporters had feared that the inauguration of Donald Trump would spell disaster for the case, the US president’s warm relations with Egyptian president Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi appeared to have influenced the acquittal.
The Trump administration made clear prior to Sisi’s visit to the White House earlier this month that it would not make any public mention of Egypt’s notoriously poor human rights record, perceived as a sign that the new administration would not put pressure on Egypt over Hijazi’s case.
Yet “the Trump administration was engaged at the highest levels and had prioritized Aya’s case,” said Wade McMullen, the head of Hijazi’s US legal team.
“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 added that members of Congress pressured Sisi over Hijazi’s case and that “top advisers in the White House were instrumental in their engagement with the Egyptian government”. He declined to state which advisers had been so receptive to concerns about Hijazi’s imprisonment, a turnaround in an administration that is rarely seen as prioritizing human rights.
Hijazi’s freedom could prove a boon for at least six other American nationals currently imprisoned in Egypt. Many however are facing charges of belonging to the banned Muslim Brotherhood, which the Trump administration has contemplated classifying as a terrorist organisation.
Since coming to power in 2014, Sisi has presided under one of the most extensive human rights and civil liberties crackdowns in Egyptian history, including the jailing of political opponents, arresting journalists and shuttering civil society organizations.
The Trump administration has forged close ties with the Egyptian leader despite such criticisms, a dramatic shift in policy from the Obama administration, which worked to free other US citizens held in Egypt but had been unable to free Hijazi.
“Three years is a long time,” said Dina el Ghamry, a friend of Hijazi and Hassanein who stood tearfully outside the courthouse after the verdict was announced. “Too long. They waited two years before even coming to court.”
Hijazi’s mother, Naglaa Hosny, said: “I feel like the mother of the bride.”
“They have graduated with honors,” she said, describing what she said was the defendants’ resilience through the three-year case. “They didn’t give up on their dream of there being no more street children. It was worth it for their cause.”
Hosny added that Hassanein hopes to resurrect the work done by the Belady Foundation, despite the increased risk resulting from the high-profile trial. Working with street children can be perceived as a political act in Egypt, due to allegations that they are sometimes employed by the country’s security services as informants.
Hosny looked on smiling as the defendants were loaded back into a darkened van to be taken back to prison and processed for release. After cheering and hugs from supporters, the sound of singing could be heard from inside the van.
“People like to think its due to the presence of America,” said Hosny, speaking of the outcome in between responding to joyful shouts from the defendants inside the van. “But I believe it’s because God has prepared them for something greater. Now they’re ready to graduate.”