Americans detained in Egypt for 1,079 days on acquitted allegations of child trafficking Egypt
Almost three years of pre-trial detention and uncertainty ended abruptly for Aya Hijazi and her co-defendants on Sunday morning with one word: “acquittal”.
The US citizen and her six co-defendants waited 1,079 days in detention to find out their fate. They were accused of child trafficking in a case the outcome of which appeared to have been heavily influenced by Egypt’s newly discovered warm relations with the United States.
Cheers and shouts overtook the smoky courtroom in Cairo as the white-clad inmates in the cage of the accused embraced in jubilation. Hijazi and her husband Mohammed Hassanein hugged, grinning.
All of them had a life in prison on charges of working for the Belady Foundation, a charity that helps street children in Cairo run by Hijazi and Hassanein.
Hijazi, Hassanein and six others were arrested in May 2014 after a raid on Belady’s office in Cairo. It would take four months for their allegations to be made public, including child sexual exploitation, use of children in protests, and human trafficking.
A forensic report by the Egyptian prosecutor found no evidence of sexual abuse after the Belady Foundation-cared for children were examined, and legal observers reported that the Hijazi trial was against the Egyptian Constitution. Although one defendant was released on medical grounds, the remaining defendants were left behind bars in what many called political.
Pretrial detention beyond two years is the order of the day in Egypt, even though it is illegal under Egyptian law.
While many Hijazi supporters had feared that Donald Trump’s inauguration would spell disaster, the US president’s cordial relations with Egyptian President Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi seemed to have influenced the acquittal.
The Trump administration made it clear, ahead of Sisi’s visit to the White House earlier this month, that it would not publicly mention Egypt’s notoriously poor human rights record, which is seen as a sign that the new administration would not put pressure on Egypt regarding Hijazi’s case .
“However, the Trump administration was involved at the highest level and had prioritized Aya’s case,” said Wade McMullen, the head of the US legal team at Hijazi.
“Your commitment was indeed the key to give the judge the space to issue his acquittal free from the influence of major political forces.”
McMullen added that members of Congress were pressuring Sisi over Hijazi’s case and that “top White House advisers were instrumental in her engagement with the Egyptian government”. He declined to reveal which advisers had been so receptive to concerns about the Hijazi detention, a turning point in a government seldom seen as a human rights prioritization.
Hijazi’s freedom could prove a boon to at least six other American nationals currently incarcerated in Egypt. However, many are accused of belonging to the banned Muslim Brotherhood, which the Trump administration has classified as a terrorist organization.
Since taking office in 2014, Sisi has carried out one of the largest crackdowns on human rights and civil liberties in Egyptian history, including the imprisonment of political opponents, the arrest of journalists and the closure of civil society organizations.
Despite this criticism, the Trump administration has forged close ties with the Egyptian leader, a dramatic change in policy towards the Obama administration, which campaigned for the liberation of other US citizens held in Egypt but was unable to liberate Hijazi .
“Three years is a long time,” said Dina el Ghamry, a friend of Hijazi and Hassanein, who stood in tears outside the courthouse after the verdict was announced. “Too long. You waited two years before even going to court.”
Hijazi’s mother Naglaa Hosny said, “I feel like the mother of the bride.”
“You graduated with honors,” she said, describing what she said was the defendants’ resilience through the three-year case. “You haven’t given up on your dream of not having street children any more. It was worth it for her cause. “
Hosny added that Hassanein hopes to revive the Belady Foundation’s work despite the increased risk posed by the high profile trial. Working with street children in Egypt can be seen as a political act, as it is claimed that they are sometimes used as informants by the country’s security services.
Hosny watched with a smile 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 singing could be heard in the van.
“People like to think that this is due to the presence of America,” said Hosny, speaking of the outcome between responding to the accused’s cheer in the van. “But I think it’s because God prepared them for something bigger. Now you are ready to graduate. ”