After spending the last three years awaiting trial in a Cairo prison, Egypt-American aid worker Aya Hijazi returned home to the United States on April 20.
One day later, the 30-year-old Hijazi met President Donald Trump, who reportedly helped orchestrate her release from the detention center in Egypt. be
The two sat together in front of reporters in the Oval Office on April 21, Hijazi with a mile-long grin that told showed just how excited she was to be back on U.S. soil.
“We are very happy to have Aya back home,” Trump said. “It’s a great honor to have her in the Oval Office with her brother.”
Since she was arrested on child abuse charges in 2014, Hijazi became the face of Egypt’s crackdown on civil society.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Hijazi & Her Husband Were Arrested In 2014, But the Charges Were Said to be ‘Fabricated’
Hijazi, her husband (Mohamed Hassanein) and six others were arrested in May 2014 after being accused of child abuse inside of the offices of the Belady Foundation for Street Children, an organization founded by Hijazi and her husband that operates in Egypt.
After a police raid on May 1, 2014, Egyptian authorities arrested eight people on charges of engaging in human trafficking, kidnapping, sexual exploitation using children in anti-government protests and operating an unlicensed organization.
During the raid, which occurred without a legal warrant, police confiscated laptops and detained Hijazi, Hassanein and other employees under the child abuse charges.
The arrest was part of a clampdown by the government on civil society. Prosecutors in the country didn’t provide much evidence to support the claims, though, and many human rights workers and officials from the U.S. said they were blatantly false. In fact, the state’s very own forensic report concluded that there was no evidence to suggest that any of the children in their care was sexually abused.
The eight people were arrested after an Egyptian man said his runaway son, Gomaa, was held at the foundation without his consent, but the boy was later found at a different place.
About one month before the police raid, Gomaa and two other children were guests with Hijazi on an Egyptian TV show called “Sitt al-Husn.” The children on the show told stories about how Hijazi’s organization changed their lives for the better.
But when Gomaa was interviewed by authorities as part of the child abuse investigation, he switched courses and claimed that he and others juveniles were paid by the foundation to disobey the police and military, adding that he was forced to take part in many sexual abuses. Watch the Gomaa’s interview in the video below.
Other interviews of juvenile subjects in the case gave contradicting statements to police about the alleged abuse, and one of them even wrote a letter to Hijazi while she was in jail apologizing for causing any stress.
The defendants in the case were held in a Cairo prison and were reportedly abused while they were being held.
3. The Trial For the Charges Had Been Delayed 7 Times For No Conclusive Reason
Prosecutors in the case certainly dragged their feet when pursuing the charges against the defendants. Hijazi, her husband and the other co-defendants were held beyond the two-year limit “for pretrial and provisional detention under Egyptian law,” Human Rights Watch wrote.
A court in Cairo postponed its verdict March 23, giving no reason for doing so. Prior to that, hearings in the case had been delayed seven times for various reasons, leaving the defendants in jail to wait.
Joe Stork, the deputy Middle East director for Human Rights Watch, said that Hijazi and the other defendants had been treated unfairly, including not being able to meet with their attorneys.
The case of Aya Hijazi and her co-defendants has been nothing less than a travesty of justice. Defendants have been unable to meet privately with lawyers, hearings have been repeatedly adjourned for long periods, while the court has routinely rejected, without explanation, numerous requests for release on bail, resulting in what appears to amount to arbitrary detention.
Human Rights Watch argued that the court proceedings violated their right to prepare a defense and fully understand the case that was to be tried against them.
3. The Charges Were Dismissed After Trump Met With Egypt’s President
The lengthy process of a starting a trial on the child abuse claims led to many U.S. officials pressing for the release of the wdefendants.
Many members of congress pushed for their release as well, especially Democratic Rep. Don Beyer (Virginia). When she was a candidate for president, Hillary Clinton pushed for their release in a meeting with el-Sisi, but again he didn’t seem to budge.
When el-Sisi visited the White House in early April, Trump didn’t publicly mention pressuring him for their release, but a senior White House official told Fox News ahead of the meeting that Hijazi’s case would be one of the topics.
Watch Trump meeting with el-Sisi in the Oval Office, with the Egyptian president sitting on the same chair that Hijazi would be welcomed to a few weeks later, in the video below.
Hijazi and the other seven defendants in the case were acquitted on the charges on the charges April 16 and free to return home after being released from prison.
Beyer said in a statement after the case was dismissed that he was disappointed it took three unnecessary years to do so, but was encouraged that they finally got their freedom back.
This wonderful news was a long time coming. I feel a deep sense of joy and relief for Aya, her husband, their colleagues at Belady who were imprisoned, Aya’s mother Naglaa, and her sister Alaa and brother Basel. I offer my humble thanks and congratulations today to them and to her many friends who worked so hard to raise the profile of this case and pressure the Egyptian government to gain her freedom.
4. Hijazi Grew Up In Virginia & Graduated From George Mason
Hijazi grew up in Falls Church, Virginia, a short five miles to Arlington. She attended George Mason University and graduated in 2009 with a degree in conflict resolution.
Chelsea Cowan, who went to George Mason with Hijazi, called the entire situation very unfortunate in an interview with WJLA-TV, an ABC affiliate.
“I think it’s really disheartening,” Cowan said to the news station. “She belonged doing that work. The children and the people she was working with — they suffer the most. I don’t think Aya is someone who is going to be deterred again by challenge.”
After graduation, Hijazi, a dual citizen, returned to Egypt to start a career in solving conflict abroad. She worked in Egypt with her husband and established the Belady Foundation, which is Arabic for the phrase “our nation.” The organization was created in 2013 and was aimed at giving those children living on the streets in Egypt shelter and rehabilitation.
A short eight months after starting the organization, Hijazi and the other employees found themselves behind bars on the charges.
5. An Online Petition Was Created & Had Almost 50,000 Signatures
When news of her arrest and impending trial surfaced, many were outraged and questioned the allegations. A petition was created on Change.org and it had 49,992 signatures as of her release back to the U.S.
A letter within the petition was delivered to the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, to U.S. Ambassador R. Stepen Beecroft and to Deputy Chief of Mission Thomas H. Goldberger. It demanded that Hijazi and the other prisoners be released.
The US State Department needs to do everything in its power to arrange for Aya and her husband to be released and allowed to return to the United States. Tell the State Department not to allow Egypt to trample on the rights of an American citizen. Free Aya and her husband now, and drop all charges against the members of the Belady Foundation.
Since their detention, former Obama administration officials were criticized at times for not pushing harder for their release.
Former Deputy Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken told The Washington Post that he believed praise Trump gave el-Sisi may have been for a reason: the release of Hijazi and her co-defendants.
The robust praise and support the president has given to el-Sisi, which stands in some contrast to what we did, had to have some price, and maybe this is it. At least it’s a positive development in which everyone can take some satisfaction.