900th Day in Prison for Founders of NGO for Street Children

900 days since her arrest, Aya Hijazi remains in prison. While Egypt and the United States exchanged critical statements over the case of the dual Egyptian-American national in September, she, her husband, Mohamed Hassanein, and six other detainees, remain among those who have exceeded the limit of Egypt’s two-year pretrial detention period. 

How the Case Began

Hijazi and her co-defendants face seven serious charges including operating an unlicensed non-governmental organization (NGO), kidnapping and physically abusing children, and inciting them to participate in anti-government protests. They all vehemently deny the allegations. If convicted, they could face a life sentence. The trial has been repeatedly postponed, and during the last session on May 21, the case was adjourned until November 19, a rare six-month postponement in a criminal case.

The NGO in question was founded by Hijazi and her husband after the January 2011 uprising. Hijazi, 29, finished her law degree at George Mason University, moving to Egypt from the US after the uprising. In a letter sent to independent daily Al Masry Al-Youm in February, Hijazi wrote that she and her husband, whom she met in Tahrir Square, decided they wanted to contribute to a humanitarian cause in Egypt. They launched the Belady Foundation which aimed to help the homeless children who found refuge in the tents in Tahrir Square during the revolution. After submitting the paperwork for a license from the Ministry of Social Affairs, Belady, took in dozens of street children. (It is common practice in Egypt for organizations to begin work after submitting their application to the ministry—which was the case for Belady—as they await final approval. It is a move however, that carries with it risks, with prosecutors charging this is in violation of the existing NGO law.)

According to accounts documented by several local rights groups, on May 1, 2014, a man forced his way in to the Belady offices just off of Tahrir Square. He claimed he was looking for his missing son. He later went to a nearby police station and filed a complaint. A few hours later, police raided the offices without a warrant, arresting Hijazi, her husband, two volunteers, and the 17 children present at the time.
Prosecutors say the charges the defendants face are based on testimony given by the children who were kept in detention for three months in a juvenile center after the foundation was raided. Hijazi’s lawyers, however, contend that the children were forced in to giving false statements in order to be released.
A lawyer with Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, Wade McMullen, who is helping with Hijazi’s case, points out that she has been prevented from seeing her husband during her detention. They see each other only during sessions of the trial, and instead, have spent the past two and half years writing letters to each other, and crafting gifts from what little material is available in prison. While an image of Hassanein giving Hijazi a bouquet of paper roses he made spread on Egyptian social media, in the local media, Hijazi has been portrayed as a foreign agent working to the benefit of the United States.
Yasmin Hussein, a lawyer with Freedom for the Brave, cites Hijazi’s case as one of many examples of security bodies violating the law which limits pretrial detention to a maximum of two years. “This means that Hijazi, Hassanein, and the rest of defendants should have been released maximum by May, 2016, while the trial goes on,” Hussein told MENASource. This is a contentious legal issue in Egypt. Human rights lawyers argue that judges should release defendants if they exceed the two-year administrative detention, even as their trial continues. Others, however, argue that the maximum pretrial detention period covers only up to the date the trial starts. After that, it is up to the judge alone to decide whether defendants remain in custody.
The US Role
Since her arrest and throughout the lengthy legal process with the repeated adjournment of her case, Hijazi family hoped the situation would correct itself. Alaa Hijazi, Aya’s sister, told MENASource that they were working on her case mainly with Egyptian NGOs and through the Egyptian legal channels. “We were doing what we could within Egypt,” she said, “But we were not making a fuss within the US government due to the tenuous relationship between Egypt and the US.”
This changed in September when Hijazi’s mother, sister, and brother met with Virginia Congressmen Gerry Connolly and Don Beyer, where they held a joint news conference calling for her immediate release. While recognizing Egypt’s role as a strategic counterterror partner to the United States, Connolly noted, “The Egyptian government mistakes American resolve. They think that because we care about the broader, 30,000-foot relationship, we won’t get into the nitty-gritty about individual human rights. Wrong. This case will continue to be elevated.”  Speaking at the conference, Hijazi’s sister, Alaa Hijazi, expressed concern over her sister’s wellbeing. “We’re worried that Aya’s resolve is beginning to crack,” Alaa said, adding that the charges Aya is facing are “absolutely absurd and unfounded.”

Later that day, Hijazi’s family met with Deputy National Security Advisor, Avril Haines at the White House. “Haines reiterated the President’s deep concern for the welfare of all American citizens held abroad, and assured Hijazi’s family that the United States will continue to offer her all possible consular support. The United States calls on the Government of Egypt to drop all charges against Hijazi and release her from prison,” a White House statement said.
Egypt’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman, Ahmed Abu Zeid, immediately responded with a statement, “denouncing the insistence of some official US circles to disregard the principle of the rule of law, and dealing selectively with it to the degree of openly asking for the release of a defendant and to drop all charges against her only because she carried an American nationality.” In return, the Foreign Ministry spokesman demanded “the release of Egyptian defendants held in US prisons and to drop all charges against them.”
Days later, former secretary of state and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton broached the subject with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, mentioning Hijazi. According to a statement released by her campaign, Clinton called for Hijazi’s release and “raised concerns about prosecution of Egyptian human rights organizations and activists.” 
Hijazi’s mother, Naglaa Hosny, told reporters in earlier statements that her daughter would never use her American nationality to secure her release. After over two and a half years behind bars, it appears her family felt they had no other recourse.
Khaled Dawoud is currently Deputy Editor-in-Chief of Al-Ahram Weekly, an English-language weekly published by Egypt’s oldest news establishment, Al-Ahram. He is also the former official spokesman of social-liberal Al-Dostour Party established by Nobel Peace Prize Winner Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei.