An American imprisoned in Egypt for the past three years has just returned home, thanks in large part to Donald Trump’s warm relationship with Egypt’s brutal dictator President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
Trump administration officials are hailing the release as an example of the administration’s “discreet diplomacy.”
Aya Hijazi, a US citizen, and her Egyptian husband Mohamed Hassanein were freed and flown back to the United States this morning.
Hijazi and Hassanein were founders of a humanitarian organization in Cairo for homeless children called Belady. In 2014, Egyptian authorities charged them with sexual abuse and trafficking of those children, a claim that human rights groups had long argued was unsubstantiated and false. Their detention well exceeded the Egyptian legal limit of two years for pretrial and provisional detention, and human rights groups maintained they had not been allowed access to their lawyers. The entire case was seen as an example of human rights abuses under the brutal rule of Sisi.
This morning, the Washington Post and NPR both reported that the Trump administration had worked assiduously to free them. Wade McMullen, of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights organization, told NPR that "senior administration officials were engaging with Egyptian officials on Aya's case” at a critical moment that coincided with both Sisi’s visit with President Trump in early April and the final moments before the couples’ fate was to be decided by the court.
No crime but several victims
Egypt had never produced evidence of a crime in the case of Hijazi and Hassanein and had delayed their trial several times.
"A government forensic report provided by Hijazi's lawyer concluded there were no signs of sexual abuse when the children would've been at the shelter," NPR’s Leila Fadel reported in 2015.
Meanwhile, the couple, as well as four other humanitarian workers that were part of the same case, languished in prison. Their families had long said the United States was not working hard enough to free them.
“The case of Aya Hijazi and her co-defendants has been nothing less than a travesty of justice,” Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director for Human Rights Watch, said in late March after yet another trial delay. “Defendants have been unable to meet privately with lawyers, hearings have been repeatedly adjourned for long periods, while the court has routinely rejected, without explanation, numerous requests for release on bail, resulting in what appears to amount to arbitrary detention.”
The family of Hijazi, who was raised in Falls Church, Virginia, repeatedly implored the Obama administration to ask for her release. The family set up a Change.org page begging for pressure on the State Department to help their daughter. Embassy officials in Egypt and the administration did take up their case, but US-Egypt relations were frigid during the last administration — in part because of the human rights abuses by the Sisi regime.
Since seizing power, Sisi has launched a crackdown on dissent. In 2013, his security services gunned down more than 800 protesters in a single day. He has labeled the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group and imprisoned thousands of university students. Human rights activists have given alarming accounts that the Sisi regime is "disappearing" hundreds of people — that is, illegally detaining and holding them in secret locations, where it is believed they are often tortured.
Nevertheless, the Trump administration reset the US-Egypt friendship. After their meeting the first week of April, Trump crowed that he and Sisi “agree on so many things.”
“I just want to let everybody know in case there was any doubt that we are very much behind President Sisi,” Trump said. “He's done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation.”
After that meeting came a break in the Hijazi case, and most analysts see a direct link between the two. An administration official told the Washington Post today that there had been “assurance from the highest levels [of Sisi’s government] that whatever the verdict was, Egypt would use presidential authority to send her home.”
The court dropped all charges and the administration sent a government aircraft to ferry the couple back to America.
"As you can imagine, they're overjoyed, they're stunned," McMullen of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights organization told NPR. "These last 72 hours have been understandingly overwhelming but they're in good spirits … You can just tell that their spirit is strong and no matter what come next that they do still feel strongly about contributing to making the world a better place."