Optimism at last for American jailed in Egypt, her family

AP News
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Posted: Dec 28, 2016 9:09 AM
Optimism at last for American jailed in Egypt, her family

McLEAN, Va. (AP) — Family and friends of an American jailed in Egypt for nearly three years are hoping her time in custody may end soon.

Aya Hijazi, 29, grew up in Falls Church and is a dual citizen of the U.S. and Egypt. After receiving her degree in conflict resolution from George Mason University in 2009, she returned to her native country and, with her Egyptian husband, started a foundation to help homeless children.

Then, as Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi was cracking down on civil society in May 2014, she and her husband, Mohammed Hassanein, were arrested, along with six others associated with their foundation, called Belady, Arabic for "our nation." She was accused of abusing children, charges widely believed to be bogus.

Hijazi's brother, Basel Hijazi, said in a phone interview from Germany that his sister has been more upbeat as her prosecution draws international condemnation and as the lack of evidence has been exposed.

"There is a lot of optimism right now. The fear would be that if things weren't to go the way we hope, it would be like a 17th hit on the head," he said.

Human rights groups and observers say the case against Hijazi is fiction, built on a few coerced statements from kids, some of which have been retracted. For years, her trial was delayed, often on frustrating technicalities. For some time, technicians could not open her laptop, where prosecutors hoped to find incriminating evidence.

The laptops have now been reviewed, and a 180-page report has been prepared. The laptops have no evidence indicating any abuse of children, said Wade McMullen, a lawyer with Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, which has taken up Hijazi's cause.

Finally, this month, the trial began. McMullen said the arresting officers testified that the arrest was so long ago, they couldn't remember any details and couldn't identify Hijazi in court. The state's forensic report shows no physical evidence of abuse, McMullen said.

Besides the apparent weakness of the case itself, there are other hopes for optimism. One of the six others arrested with the couple was released from jail recently on health concerns. Also, a new judge appears to be moving the case along more quickly.

"There is no real independence of the judiciary in Egypt," McMullen said. "But there are judges who are able to manage more independence than others."

Harder to assess is how the U.S. presidential transition might affect Egypt's willingness to accommodate American demands for Hijazi's release. Calls and emails to the Egyptian Embassy seeking comment were not returned.

During the presidential campaign, both Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump met with President el-Sissi when he came to the United Nations. Clinton explicitly called for Hijazi's release; there's no indication Trump brought up Hijazi's case.

Trump, though, appears to be on good terms with el-Sissi; the Egyptian was the first world leader to call Trump and congratulate him on his victory. Trump's comments on Middle East policy have generally been supportive of secular governments such as el-Sissi's that have taken hard lines against Islamist factions.

It remains to be seen whether Trump's comments will translate into Egyptian willingness to accommodate American requests for Hijazi's release, or an interpretation by Egyptian leaders that they can act with impunity.

McMullen said it's incumbent on Trump to use his influence to help Hijazi.

"You have a president-elect who ran on an agenda of America first," McMullen said. "Well, this is an American being detained. ... The American people are not going to let an American president befriend an autocrat who imprisons his people unjustly, especially when that includes an American citizen."

Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., a former ambassador who has called attention to Hijazi's detention, said he's hopeful Trump can leverage his relationship with el-Sissi into a positive outcome for Hijazi. If not, he said, Congress should be prepared to re-evaluate the $1.3 billion Egypt receives in U.S. aid.

"It's a very complicated relationship we have with Egypt," Beyer said, noting the role Egypt plays in America's broader Middle East strategy. "But you would think we would have more economic leverage than perhaps we've been willing to use."