On Sunday 16 April Cairo Criminal Court ruled Aya Hegazi, a dual US-Egyptian national, not guilty. She had been detained for more than three years in a case that has sparked international concern.
In his ruling the judge said the prosecutor had not submitted sufficient evidence for the case to continue.
The court also acquitted Hagazi’s seven co-defendants, including her husband Mohamed Hassanein. They were found not guilty of a raft of charges that included the kidnapping and sexual abuse of children.
After judge Mohamed Al-Fekki read out the verdict Hegazi and her husband embraced in the dock. Hassanein then vowed to continue working for street children.
“The prosecution can contest the ruling in 60 days… but the court said they had presented no evidence that the defendants committed any crime,” said Hegazi’s lawyer Ahmed Saad. “The only legal infringement was operating without licence and this is a misdemeanour, not a felony.”
Hegazi set up the Belady Foundation for Street Children in September 2013 with the goal of offering services, including protection from sexual abuse, to Egypt’s street children. It offered literacy and art classes in addition to other activities.
In May 2014 police raided Belady’s headquarters in downtown Cairo following a complaint from a man who claimed the foundation had kidnapped his son. The police arrested Hegazi, her husband and six others. Following the raid, the police reportedly discovered Belady was not registered, lacked a licence to offer any help to street children and may have been funded from non-Egyptian sources.
Hegazi told the court that after she had returned from the US to her “beloved country” following the 25 January Revolution she decided to found the Belady Foundation for Street Children.
Hegazi’s case caused friction between Cairo and Washington — the Obama administration called on the Egyptian government to release Hegazi — and was condemned by both local and international rights groups. During last year’s US presidential campaign Hilary Clinton called for Hegazi’s release.
During his visit to Washington earlier this month President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi said the case was “in the hands of the courts and the executive authority cannot interfere”.
“I would like to reassure those who are interested in this case, and by the way the charge against her is using children in demonstrations, that it is now being looked into by the courts,” Al-Sisi told Fox News on 6 April.
“As soon as the courts issue a verdict, we will have the opportunity, based on my authority as president, to act in a suitable way,” he added.
The US consulate in Cairo did not attend the final court session, the first hearing it has missed since the start of the trial. Hegazi’s lawyer said his client refused to use her American nationality and insisted she be tried as an Egyptian citizen. Representatives from local and international human rights groups were in court for the verdict.
Following the ruling the Ministry of Social Solidarity said no decision had been taken on whether to dissolve Belady or grant it a licence.
“We have to wait for the details of the ruling before determining whether Belady will be allowed to continue to operate,” said Ayman Abdel-Mawgoud, head of the NGO department at the Ministry of Solidarity.