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Egypt acquits U.S. woman detained for almost 3 years

CAIRO -- An Egyptian court on Sunday acquitted Aya Hijazi, a dual U.S.-Egyptian citizen who has been held in detention for nearly three years over accusations related to a non-governmental organization she founded to aid street children.

Authorities arrested Hijazi, her husband and six others in May 2014 on charges of abusing children that were widely dismissed as bogus by human rights groups and senior U.S. officials, who called for her release.

The arrests came as part of a wider clampdown on civil society especially following the military overthrow of an elected Islamist president in 2013. Prosecutors provided little if any evidence to support the allegations.

U.S. Rep. Don Beyer of Virginia voiced his joy and relief for Hijazi’s release in a statement.

“This wonderful news was a long time coming,” he said.

Aya Hijazi, founder of Belady, an NGO that promotes a better life for street children, is seen inside a holding cell as she faces trial on charges of human trafficking at a courthouse in Cairo, Egypt, March 23, 2017. REUTERS

Beyer was among several members of Congress who have called on Egypt to release Hijazi. Hillary Clinton reiterated the demand as well in a meeting with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi last September, when she was the Democratic presidential candidate.

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President Donald Trump did not publicly mention the case when he welcomed el-Sissi to the White House earlier this month, but a senior White House official had said ahead of the meeting that the case would be addressed.

Wade McMullen, an attorney who handles human rights cases before international tribunals, said administration officials had prioritized Hijazi’s case. He also said the case was brought up during el-Sissi’s meeting with lawmakers in Washington.

McMullen said he believes that international pressure helped call attention to the case, especially that there was “zero evidence” condemning Hijazi and her co-defendants.

“There was no reason the case should have been brought in the first place,” he said.

The court’s decision to acquit surprised Hijazi’s mother, Naglaa Hosny, who told The Associated Press “we were expecting the worst and hoping for the best.”

Hijazi’s Egyptian lawyer, Taher Abol Nasr, said Hijazi would likely remain in detention another two to three days while her acquittal is processed. He expects all the defendants to walk free by the end of the week. It was not immediately clear if Hijazi would remain in Egypt.

‎”We welcome the court’s decision today to release Aya Hijazi, and we are pleased that she will be reunited with her family soon,” the State Department said in a statement. “We will continue to provide all possible consular assistance if requested.”

Hijazi, 30, grew up in Falls Church, Virginia. She received a degree in conflict resolution from George Mason University in 2009, and then returned to her native Egypt.

Along with her husband, Hijazi established a foundation by the name Belady, Arabic for “our nation,” in 2013 with the aim of providing shelter for street children.

A few months later, authorities raided the foundation’s office after a man alleged that his son was missing and blamed it on Belady.

Egyptian authorities have clamped down on civil society, particularly human rights groups and other organizations that receive foreign funding. Such groups played a central role in the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak, and pro-government media often present them as part of a conspiracy to undermine the state.

The authorities also arrested thousands of people in the months following the 2013 overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi, mainly his Islamist supporters but also a number of secular and liberal activists.

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