Egypt Clears Aid Worker Of Abuse And Trafficking Allegations

Apr 18, 2017
Originally published on April 18, 2017 8:39 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We're going to turn now to Egypt where a court has dropped charges against an Egyptian-American woman held in jail for almost three years. She runs a charity for street kids and had been accused of child abuse. But the case has become a symbol of Egypt's crackdown on almost any organization not connected to the government. NPR's Jane Arraf joins us from Cairo. Hi, Jane.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Hi, David.

GREENE: So what should we know about this case?

ARRAF: Well, it centers around Aya Hijazi, who's a graduate of George Mason University in Virginia who moved to Cairo. Now, this is a really poor country, and there are heartbreaking scenes here. There are lots of little kids working in the street, some of them begging. They certainly don't go to school.

So she and her Egyptian husband set up a charity called Belady - my country - to take care of street kids and to educate them. And shortly after that, she, her husband and six other people connected to them were arrested. Now, her mother, Najla Hosni, told NPR's Leila Fadel afterwards her daughter had been hit during the interrogation, but she says that wasn't the worst part. The worst part were the accusations that she and the organization were holding kids against their will and actually engaging in human trafficking and sexual exploitation.

GREENE: I mean, very serious charges. I mean, were they just not true? What happened to the charges?

ARRAF: So the prosecutors could never prove the case. The international human rights group Human Rights Watch says witnesses for the prosecution disappeared or recanted, and she was never even allowed to meet with her lawyers privately.

Now, she was held for more than two years, far longer than even Egyptian law allows. And her case because it was very high-profile was raised with senior U.S. officials between those officials and Egyptian officials. So on Sunday, a court announced that it was dropping the charges, and she and all the rest can go free. But that takes a while, and they're not free yet.

GREENE: Oh, not free yet. So she has not been released. It's not over yet.

ARRAF: It's not over yet. There are a lot of bureaucratic hurdles. Her mother - I spoke to her mother, and she's expecting her to be free either today or tomorrow, possibly a day after that. It's all a bit opaque.

But the other thing, David, is there are a lot of other people in jail in similar situations. The government has declared a crackdown here. It says there are 40,000 non-governmental organizations that are unregulated. And it's shut down a lot of them, particularly those that get foreign funding because it says they're not complying with the law.

GREENE: Well, Jane, what about the future of Hijazi's organization that she founded? I mean, it sounds like such a wonderful mission.

ARRAF: By all accounts it was. It actually made a difference in a lot of kids' lives. Now, her husband Mohamed Hassanein, who's Egyptian, has said he wants to continue the work they're doing with these kids. They have a real connection to a lot of these kids. But that looks like it's going to be very difficult, so there's been a crackdown here that's been in place for years, ever since the government here took power in a military coup. And there's a state of emergency that curtails freedom of movement, and it allows police to basically arrest people without charge.

So it's become extremely difficult for anyone not working with the government. So as for Hijazi, if there's no travel ban against her - and there doesn't seem to be one so far - she's free to leave the country. And a lot of Egyptians with other nationalities have actually done just that.

GREENE: NPR's Jane Arraf talking to us from Cairo. Jane, thanks a lot.

ARRAF: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.