Locked up in Egypt, Aya Hegazy draws Washington attention

Locked up in Egypt, Aya Hegazy draws Washington attention
In-depth: Hegazy, who runs an organisation for street children in Cairo, has been the focus of recent high-level meetings on the fringes of the UN General Assembly.
6 min read
23 September, 2016
Aya Hegazy's case has drawn widespread criticism [Facebook]

As meetings between Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the two US presidential candidates made news of Egypt over the past week, the case of Egyptian-American Aya Hegazy, detained on charges related to running a non-profit organisation for street children in Egypt, also gained international coverage.

Last Tuesday, in Hillary Clinton's meeting with the Egyptian president on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, the Democratic candidate brought up Aya Hegazy's case and demanded her release.

Clinton "raised concerns about prosecution of Egyptian human rights organisations and activists", her spokesperson said in a press release.

The White House released a statement on September 16 calling on the Egyptian government to free the US citizen, following a press conference by two US congressmen from Hegazy's home state, Virginia, along with her family, friends, and legal counsel.

Joined by other Members of Congress, the two representatives demanded the immediate release of Hegazy - who has been imprisoned in Egypt for more two years without trial.

The lawsuit against Aya Hegazy and her husband, Mohammed Hassanein, has raised a few eyebrows when looking at the evidence on which the case was taken to court.

On May 1, 2014, police raided and searched the office of the Belady Foundation, in downtown Cairo, reportedly without a warrant from the prosecution, and arrested the two founders and six volunteers after a man alleged that his missing son had been held in the foundation's premises.

The defendants were detained on seven charges which include running an unlicensed organisation, sexually assaulting minors, and inciting street children to join Muslim Brotherhood protests.

Most of these charges were proven false, since the forensic report to the prosecution found no signs of torture or sexual abuse of any children.

Besides that, witness statements from volunteers and visitors to the foundation stated that the children were treated "humanely and honourably".

The charges against Aya and her husband... are completely baseless and false

Furthermore, the Belady Foundation, formed in September 2013, had completed most of the procedures required for registration - however, five months of bureaucratic and security red-tape had prevented the foundation from obtaining its registration number.

"The charges against Aya and her husband Mohamed and the others associated with the Belady Foundation are completely baseless and false. There's no evidence that there is any shred of truth to them whatsoever," said Wade H McMullen Jr, managing attorney at the Robert F Kennedy human rights organisation.

The attorney emphasised how Egypt's very own forensic report "debunks" the allegations that children had suffered any violence or abuse while at Belady.

Hegazy's trial has been postponed seven times, delaying the proceedings by six months - until November 19.

"I think the fact that the trial is being repeatedly delayed just shows the complete absence of evidence that the Egyptian government has to substantiate the case. Otherwise on such serious charges, Aya should have been already sentenced," McMullen argued.

Some contradictory details make the case rather bizarre. A group of children gave conflicting accounts - telling in videos how their lives were positively transformed after joining the foundation, whereas later, while recorded by the police and the prosecution, testifying to witnessing daily sexual assaults, receiving brutal treatment at the foundation, or being paid to demonstrate against the army and police.

Subsequent to some of the video recordings alleging abuse against minors at Belady, some children contacted Hassanein saying they were very sorry they had been forced to make up these stories, McMullen added.

"Homeless children on Cairo's streets suffer abuse by police and security officers every day," he explained. "It's not surprising that the police and security forces so often coerce false confessions from these boys."

A couple who used their time and finances to set up an organisation to help street children of Egypt, to give them shelter, food and education, have found themselves incriminated with the worst possible accusations.

Hegazy has been held in pre-trial detention for more than two years, which exceeds even the limit set by Egypt's criminal procedure law.

"Aya's continued detention violates legal standards set by the United Nations, the African Union, and Egypt's own laws," US Representative Don Beyer said in a press release.

"Despite the extraordinary length of this pre-trial detention, the Egyptian government still cannot present any evidence against her. Aya should be free."

Alaa Hegazy concurred. "The charges against my sister are completely untrue, unfounded and absurd," she said, having spent a week in Washington with her family to elevate the profile of the case.

"This is such a flagrant human rights abuse, and it's the case of at least 1,400 other people in Egypt who have exceeded their pre-trial detention limit inside prisons," she said.

"I believe this has unfortunately become a state punitive measure to keep people detained for so long even in the absence of evidence."

Hegazy is a US citizen in a country with a paranoia about American "interference". She is one of the many thousands who have suffered political repression in Egypt.

The case is comes amid a broader context of the ongoing clampdown on NGO workers - as well as journalists, academics, artists, activists and whomever is perceived as a threat to the Egyptian state.

It is another example of the suppression of initiatives in Egyptian civil society. Hegazy and Hassanein were simply caught among those targeted by the regime.

Hegazy's imprisonment has been becoming more worrisome as she has been increasingly isolated

Representative Beyer, who has long been involved in Hegazy's case, raising the issue several times with the US Secretary of State and the State Department, has encouraged fellow members of Congress to press Egypt's government to observe human rights standards and uphold the rule of law.

Hegazy's detention has been widely condemned by local and international rights groups - with several statements of support and calls for the release of all defendants from the Belady foundation and the dropping of all charges.

Meanwhile, Hegazy's imprisonment has been becoming more worrisome as she has been increasingly isolated, forbidden to engage with other inmates, and banned from seeing her husband, her lawyer testified.

Alaa Hegazy said that her sister had not been in good spirits, especially after the two-year mark was passed, and after the court hearing in May this year adjourned her case for another six months.

The Hegazy family initially avoided making the case public, hoping to resolve the matter quietly. Without progress domestically, however, they decided to take the case to a higher level and draw international attention.

"The family and I have been really encouraged over the past week by the increasing attention Aya's case has gotten - from Capitol Hill to the White House to the State Department," McMullen concluded. "We think that Hillary Clinton raising the case with al-Sisi is a sign that not only Aya's case is not going to go away any time soon from the public eye but it will persistently be a part of the discussions with Egyptian officials."

In a pres conference, US Representative Gerry Connolly added: "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."