Wednesday,13 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1312, (22-28 September 2016)
Wednesday,13 December, 2017
Issue 1312, (22-28 September 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Thirty months on

Detained activist Aya Hegazy becomes the latest thorn in Cairo’s difficult relationship with Washington, reports Khaled Dawoud

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Egypt and the United States exchanged critical statements this week over dual Egyptian-American national Aya Hegazy who has been held in jail, together with her husband and six other defendants, for 30 months. Hegazy is accused by the authorities of running a non-governmental organisation (NGO) which served as cover for the sexual abuse of homeless children who were also incited to take part in anti-government protests.

Hegazy’s family, frustrated by the constant adjournment of a case which her sister has called “absolutely absurd and unfounded”, decided to go public in Washington. The last session of court hearings was on 21 May, during which further hearings were postponed until 19 November, a rare delay of six months in a criminal case. Hegazy and the other defendants were arrested on 1 May, 2014.

On Thursday, 15 September, Hegazy’s mother, sister and brother met with two Virginia congressmen and held a joint news conference in which they demanded her immediate release. Later the same day the 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 Hegazy’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 Hegazy and release her from prison,” a White House statement said.

Egypt’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman, Ahmed Abu Zeid, immediately responded, “denouncing the insistence of some official US circles to disregard the principle of the rule of law, and deal 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 has American nationality.” The Foreign Ministry spokesman went on to demand “the release of Egyptian defendants held in US prisons and the dropping all charges against them”.

Hegazy, 29, who completed her law degree at George Mason’s University, returned to Egypt from the US after 2011 Revolution. She met her husband, Mohamed Hassanein, in Tahrir Square. The couple went on to found an NGO to help homeless children who had taken refuge in Tahrir Square during the revolution.

After being licensed by the Ministry of Social Affairs, Belady began working with dozens of street children. Hegazy, Hassanein and other workers at the NGO say one of their key targets was to reunite the children with their families after rehabilitation.

On 1 May, 2014 a man forced his way inside the offices of Belady in Mohamed Mahmoud Street claiming he was looking for his son. He later went to a nearby police station and filed a complaint. Within hours police raided Belady and arrested Hegazy, her husband and the other defendants.

They faced seven serious charges, including “establishing and running a criminal group that aimed at the human trafficking and abuse of 25 children”.

According to the charges they “used force and threats against the children… in order to sexually exploit them by producing pornographic material, and encouraged them to take part in demonstrations and collect donations”.

Prosecutors allege that Hegazy and other defendants “made the children strip naked to take pictures and forced them to have sex”. They also face charges of kidnapping children, keeping them inside Belady’s offices against their will and running an illegal organisation.

Hegazy’s lawyers, her family and the US congressmen sharply criticised her lengthy detention. Yasmin Hussein, a lawyer, says the case is one of many examples of how security bodies routinely violate legislation which limits pre-trial detention to a maximum of two years. “Hegazy, Hassanein and the other defendants should have been released by May 2016 at the latest,” says Hussein.

Other legal experts argue that the maximum pretrial detention period covers only up to the date of a trial opening and after which it is up to the courts to decide whether defendants remain in detention.

In the news conference held in Washington DC on Thursday Democratic Congressmen Gerry Connolly acknowledged the important strategic partnership between the US and Egypt in confronting terrorism. He also noted that “the Egyptian government mistakes American resolve”.

“They think that because we care about the broader relationship, we won’t get into the nitty-gritty about individual human rights. Wrong. This case will continue to be raised.”

Democrat Congressman Don Beyer said he considered Hegazy “a constituent” because she had lived with her family in Falls Church, VA. He said no evidence has yet been produced to support the allegations against Hegazy and her prolonged detention violates Egyptian laws guaranteeing a speedy trial.

Prosecutors say the charges are based on testimony given by children who were kept in detention for three months in a minors’ center following Belady’s closure. Hegazy’s lawyers claim the children were forced to give in false statements in order to be released.

“Aya should be praised as a hero, someone who has championed the neglected,” Beyer said.

Hegazy’s sister, Alaa Hegazy, who stood next to Beyer and Connolly, said her sister has been in good spirits during her detention but couldn’t say how long this will last.

“We’re worried Aya’s resolve is beginning to crack,” Alaa said.

The charges against her sister only make sense, she added, “in the context of the Egyptian government’s campaign against intellectuals, academics and others that it deems a threat to its authority”.

Wade McMullen, a lawyer with Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Centre, has been assisting Hegazy. He said she has been banned from seeing her husband or conversing with other inmates during her detention. The couple meet only during trial sessions.

Beyer believes it is now time for the State Department to do more to press for Hegazy’s release. “There’s been a lot of jawboning going on, but so far it hasn’t freed Aya,” he said.

Hegazy’s mother, Naglaa Hosny, had earlier told reporters that her daughter would never seek to use her American nationality to secure release from detention. Hosny said her daughter was determined to stand by her husband and other colleagues in the case until they are all released. Yet as Hegazy began her 31st month behind bars it appears her family felt they had no other option but to seek to increase US and international pressure in an attempt to win her release.

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