American Aid Worker Is Cleared of Child Abuse Charges in Egypt

Aya Hijazi and her husband, Mohamed Hassanein, in a holding cell at a courthouse in Cairo, Egypt, in March.
Credit...Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters

CAIRO — After three years in detention, the Egyptian-American aid worker Aya Hijazi was cleared of child abuse and human trafficking charges in Cairo on Sunday, abruptly ending a high-profile case that had become an international symbol of Egypt’s harsh crackdown on aid groups.

A courtroom in downtown Cairo erupted in cheers after the judge dropped all charges against Ms. Hijazi, her Egyptian husband and all six other defendants in what human rights groups called a weak case driven by defective evidence.

Ms. Hijazi, 30, a graduate of George Mason University in Virginia, embraced her husband after the verdict was announced, then smiled broadly as she was led from a metal cage to a waiting police vehicle to be processed for release.

Her mother, Najla Hosni, embraced her outside the court building. “I told Aya that she graduated from their trial with honor,” Ms. Hosni said afterward.

The verdict came just under two weeks after Egypt’s autocratic president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, visited Washington and was praised by President Trump, who said, “He’s done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation.”

Senior American officials told Ms. Hijazi’s relatives that they had raised her case during Mr. Sisi’s visit, her brother Basel Hijazi said in a phone interview from Ireland. But they did not know if it had been addressed directly when the leaders met face to face.

“To be honest, we are just happy that she is out,” he said. “Everything that is going on internationally is irrelevant.”

Ms. Hijazi, who has dual American and Egyptian citizenship, was arrested in May 2014 with her husband, Mohamed Hassanein, and others at the Beladi Foundation, a nonprofit she founded to care for street children in Cairo.

Government prosecutors accused the couple of human trafficking and sexually abusing children in their care, potential charges that carried sentences ranging from five years’ hard labor to life in prison.

Ms. Hijazi and the other defendants had been held long beyond Egypt’s two-year limit for pretrial detention, in what Human Rights Watch called a “bizarre case.” Egyptian rights groups said the evidence against the couple lacked credibility.

Credit...Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters

While some children at the charity did show signs of sexual trauma, a forensic report concluded that the abuse had occurred before 2014. The case came to be seen as part of the wider crackdown on civil society under Mr. Sisi.

Since coming to power in 2013, Mr. Sisi’s increasingly authoritarian government has sought to weed out even the mildest forms of potential dissent. Part of that has involved demonizing aid groups with foreign funding that are portrayed in pro-state news media as unpatriotic provocateurs that seek to destabilize the country.

At the time of Ms. Hijazi’s arrest, Egyptian news media outlets described her as an American agitator who had abused children and had paid them to throw stones at the police and security officials on the street. Her family said the charges had no basis in reality.

As she had done many times over the years, Ms. Hijazi sat in a metal cage alongside her husband and other defendants on Sunday. The court hearings had been the only opportunity for the couple, who married one year before they were detained, to see each other.

At times, during earlier hearings, she read a book while waiting for her case to be heard. After the ruling on Sunday, Ms. Hijazi was taken back to prison to be processed for release. Her lawyer, Taher Abu El-Nasr, said he expected Ms. Hijazi and the other defendants to be freed in a matter of days.

After the ruling on Sunday, Mr. Hassanein said the couple hoped to return to their work with street children in Cairo.

“We promised them that we could come back,” he said, speaking from the courtroom cage after his wife had left. “Children are wealth, and they were strong while we have been in prison. We want to go back to the streets.”

Still, he said, he was unsure if the government would allow them to resume that work.

While Ms. Hijazi’s case has dominated international attention of late, many similar prosecutions targeting lawyers, activists and journalists pass through the courts every day. Judges have sentenced hundreds of government opponents to lengthy prison sentences. Some have been sentenced to death, although executions are rare.

“Foreign funding is just a reason,” said Mohamed Zaree of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. “It’s a way of targeting anyone who has an independent voice, or is critical of the current regime.”

Among the foreigners detained in Egypt is Ibrahim Halawa, a 21-year-old Irish citizen who was arrested in 2013 at a Muslim Brotherhood protest during a turbulent period when the security forces killed at least 800 people. Mr. Halawa’s family says that he is on a hunger strike to protest his continued detention in a mass trial involving about 500 other people.

The case has attracted significant attention in Ireland. A group of Irish parliamentarians visited Egypt to petition Mr. Sisi for Mr. Halawa’s release in January, amid concerns that he has not received adequate treatment for a health condition. But the hearings have been subject to numerous delays.

Last month, the Irish government sent a doctor to Egypt to examine Mr. Halawa. A week later, Prime Minister Enda Kenny wrote a letter to Mr. Sisi pleading for his release on humanitarian grounds.