Egypt acquits American woman detained for 3 years

US-Egyptian charity worker Aya Hejazi looks on the from the defendent's cage during her trial in Cairo

After three years in detention, Aya Hijazi, her husband and six other charity workers were acquitted in a Cairo court on Sunday.

According to news reports, Aya Hijazi hopes to remain in Cairo caring for street children, the calling which brought her back to Egypt upon her graduation from George Mason University's School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution.

Local and global rights groups have criticized the case, alleging a lack of evidence and complaining about the prolonged pre-trial detention.

Supporters broke into applause as the judge announced that Aya Hijazi, a US-Egyptian, her husband Mohamed Hassanein and six others were found not guilty on charges including human trafficking, sexually exploiting children and failure to properly register a non-governmental organisation. She had been in custody for 33 months, violating Egyptian law which states that the maximum period of pretrial detention is 24 months.

Human Rights Watch last month alleged that Hejazi and her co-defendants had been denied private meetings with lawyers and were being held in "arbitrary detention".

Nongovernmental organizations in Egypt have faced growing pressure since late 2011, when authorities raided 17 pro-democracy and rights groups, accusing them of joining an worldwide conspiracy against Egypt. "We promised the children they won't return to the streets again, and this promise was hindered for three years". Dressed in white prison uniforms, Hijazi and her husband, Mohammed Hassanein, embraced inside the defendants' cage as friends and family cried, cheered and chanted for joy.

"Humanity became free, and the dream doesn't die".

The courtroom erupted in cheers after Aya Hijazi, 30, was cleared of child abuse and human trafficking charges.

"I feel like the mother of a bride today", Hijazi's mother, Naglaa Hosny, said.

"We promised them that we could come back", he said to a New York Times reporter while speaking from the courtroom cage.

Taher Aboelnasr, Ms Hijazi's lawyer, said the prosecution could appeal the verdict but that would not prevent the defendants' release, which he said should happen this week.

Since coming to power in 2014, Sisi has presided under one of the most extensive human rights and civil liberties crackdowns in Egyptian history, including the jailing of political opponents, arresting journalists and shuttering civil society organisations. The net has widened to include liberal and secular activists.

"Aya Hijazi, her husband, and their colleagues are finally free, but the system that subjected them to a travesty of justice for almost three years remains unchanged", said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.



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