The curious case against Aya Hegazy and the Belady Foundation

Editor’s note: On March 23, the Cairo Criminal Court adjourned the hearing of the case against the Belady Foundation for the Care of Street Children to May 21, 2016. The special committee summoned to review the evidence has claimed it was not qualified to do so. This is the sixth time the trial has been postponed. The eight defendants, including Egyptian-American Aya Hegazy and her husband, Mohamed Hassanein, have spent nearly two years in pretrial detention. They face charges ranging from running an unlicensed organization to sex trafficking and child abuse.

Warning: This article contains material of a distressing nature related to allegations of sexual violence committed against children, and other disturbing juvenile confessions.

Last December, I read a letter from Aya Hegazy. “Don’t leave us here in prison, don’t forget us, and don’t make us lose hope in justice and humanity,” she wrote.

I gathered the documents of the 400-page court case against the nongovernmental organization run by Aya and her husband, Mohamed Hassanein, the Belady Foundation for the Care of Street Children. The defendants — including Hegazy, her husband and six others — have been held in pretrial detention for almost two years on charges including sex trafficking and child abuse.

Almost no one knows, however, the disastrous details of this case. I would suggest reading this statement first, as it provides some good background. This article discusses the evidence on which the case was taken to court.

The official story

“Some thugs came from Ezbet Abu Hashish two days ago … and they started a fight … then came the police,” according to the statement of one of the children.

According to the official account, Gouda, an Ezbet Abu Hashish resident, was looking for his runaway son. Galal, one of the local homeless children, told him that he had escaped from a foundation that gives shelter to homeless children in Tahrir Square, and that his son was there, and was getting beaten up by those responsible for the shelter.

When Gouda went with the boy, his son was not at the apartment. On finding locked rooms that the foundation’s staff refuse to open, he left, scared. However, another child called Said begged him for help and to be saved from the abuse and torture there, so Gouda took the boy with him. He then called his relatives, who came and broke into the foundation’s office. They did not find Gouda’s son there, but they found another child, Mohsen, tied down and naked. And so Gouda headed to the Abdeen Police Station to file a report.

The police stormed into the apartment, arresting the couple who ran it, Hegazy and Hassanein, as well as volunteers Amira Farag and Sherif Talaat. That was on May 2, 2014, the same day Belady announced on its official Facebook page that the foundation’s children were celebrating the Color Festival, inviting young people to participate in the festivities.

The details of the case

Around one month before the police raided the foundation, three children — Gomaa, Youssef and A. — were guests with Aya Hegazy on the TV show “Sitt al-Husn” (A Woman of Beauty, aired on the privately owned ONtv satellite channel). Pay close attention to the stories told by Gomaa and Youssef, whose accounts will dramatically change later:

In this “Sitt al-Husn” episode, the children describe their miserable state before meeting Hegazy, and how their lives were positively transformed after joining the foundation.

Now listen to Gomaa’s story, as recorded by the police and the prosecutor during his interrogation, in the records of the juvenile investigation authority:

Gomaa talks about the demonstrations in which he participated, how he and other children were paid to clash with the police and the military, and the sexual abuses he witnessed and was forced to take part in at the foundation.

Did you notice how comfortable and confident Gomaa appears in the first video, and how scared and battered he seems in the second one? In the first video he was allegedly in the hands of the “Belady gang,” as per the official story, whereas the second one was recorded after he had been saved by the police.

Youssef, who in this picture on the Belady Foundation Facebook page is posing with his artwork and innocent smile, also talked about the brutal treatment he was subjected to at the foundation in his testimony to the police.

“We had no proper food. They used to show us porn movies and make us sleep with the kids who wanted to leave,” he said. Youssef testified to witnessing daily sexual assaults that were provoked by watching porn films, saying that the foundation’s administration was aware of this. He also testified to sexually assaulting a child called Kamal (who according to the forensic report was not sexually assaulted). However, Youssef negated this story when questioned at the prosecutor’s office, when he was no longer in the hands of the police.

This is Ali. He is laughing wholeheartedly in this photo with Gomaa, who is making Belady’s sign with his hand — not the sign of political dissent, as one police officer claimed in a phone call to a TV show.

In this photo, we see the child playing with his friends, lifting one of them on his shoulders. But look at him in this video as he testifies in front of a police officer about what allegedly happened to him at the foundation:

Ali talks about being paid to demonstrate and clash with the police. He also describes the sexual abuse he was subjected to at the foundation.

This is Wael, posing for the camera with a smile, holding a sketch he made of his friends at the foundation.

Now notice his wounded forehead at minute 0:57 of this video:

Wael talks about getting paid to clash with the police at the presidential palace.

We will take a look at how those young children, whom Hegazy and her friends worked hard to rehabilitate, transformed entirely during the police interrogations. It breaks my heart whenever I think of what they had to endure during this ordeal.

Let us pause for a second and look at how the previous video was edited in such a way as to incriminate Hassanein. If you go back to the video, posted on the privately owned Al-Watan newspaper’s website, you will find that when the officer asks Wael, “Did Mohamed Hassanein tell you to go with them to [the presidential palace]?” the video editor chose to insert footage of Hassanein nodding in approval to something that we cannot hear.

The editor inserted footage of Hassanein nodding after the officer asks the child the question, so it is as if Hassanein is confirming the accusation that he incited the kids to protest. Whoever edited the video has committed a crime of fabricating evidence. After all, these videos form the basis on which the officials sent the case to court.

The police records describe Gouda’s attempts to find his runaway son. He states that when he searched the closed rooms after the locks were broken, the child Mohsen was found “completely naked with his hands tied behind his back, and he was then taken out of the room and his hands were untied.” That was allegedly the reason he filed a police report and accused Hegazy, Hassanein and Talaat of kidnapping the child.

But Mohsen gave another statement that contradicts this. When asked in the prosecutor’s investigation, “What do you have to say about Gouda’s account of finding you completely naked with your hands tied behind your back?” He answers, “No, this never happened. The door was locked from the outside, but my hands weren’t tied, and I had my shirt off.” We have sweeping inconsistencies in the juvenile confessions in this case.

In his testimony to the police and the prosecution, Gouda says that a boy, Said, held onto him as he was heading out of the foundation, begging to be saved, and so he took him along. However, that child told the prosecutor that he did not leave the apartment with Gouda, and that he did not ask him for help. He left with the police when they raided the place.

In the prosecutor’s records, Gouda, who filed the complaint, also testifies to things not mentioned in the police report, such as seeing five completely naked children, “and the rest were shirtless and smoking cigarettes.”

It is the same narrative as that of Galal, the child who led Gouda to the foundation. He alleged that when he asked Hegazy and Hassanein to leave the foundation, they beat him and locked him in. He said that he escaped through a window and went back to his parents, who kicked him out, so he went back to the foundation. This is when he supposedly met Gouda’s son. He said that he then asked Hegazy and Hassanein to let him go and they just made him leave. The story is unbelievable — first, he escapes through the window of the sixth-floor apartment, and then the couple (who are accused of detaining, beating, raping and filming children so that they would not go back to their families) simply let him walk out when he asks the second time.  

Gouda also said that his son had been missing for 15 days, whereas Galal, who is supposed to be his son’s friend, said on record that Gouda told him on the day that he supposedly escorted him to the foundation that his son had disappeared three months earlier.

Well, the problem is not only the question of for how long Gouda’s son was really missing. In fact, none of the other children know anything about Gouda’s son, and both Hegazy and Hassanein confirmed that he had never been at the foundation.

Additionally, forensic reports contradict Gouda’s claims. Gouda told the prosecution that after saving Said, the child told him that “someone had fucked him from behind.” According to the forensic report dated May 6, 2014, the examination of the child showed no signs of recent or old bruises on the anus or the surrounding area that would indicate anal penetration.

In the police records, children who said that they witnessed sexual abuse taking place in the foundation agreed that Kamal was a victim of constant sexual assault. However, the forensic report for this child also shows no signs indicating anal penetration.

Before going into further details, it should be mentioned that the police forces that raided the foundation had no warrant to search the place or to take photos of the children during the investigations, according to the official records.

The official testimony of Gomaa, one of the children who appeared on the TV show “Sitt al-Husn,” states in the police record that Hassanein “wanted them to go to a camp in Nuweiba to quit smoking and sex. They used to show us filthy movies at the Belady Foundation, and some children got excited by those movies and used to have sex together at night.” Those words were said in that exact order, without any intervals. In the same sentence, the child said that the foundation was sending them to a camp to “help them quit sex” and “showing them porn movies.” All the official records that I have read fail to mention any films as part of the evidence found by the police. Wael, however, said that they told him they were going to Nuweiba “to demonstrate.”

The children talked about the bizarre rates they were allegedly paid to protest. The rates differed according to whether they were going to throw stones or Molotov cocktails at the police and soldiers. Some of the kids even mentioned rockets and firecrackers. One of the children talked about getting LE50 for throwing stones and LE100 for throwing Molotov cocktails, saying that they used to pay them during the protest, but then they would take the money back as soon as they got back to the foundation, telling the kids, “We will save the money for you.” There were remarkably identical sentences repeated by some of the children, which are bizarre language for a child, like saying, “they used to show us movies, and we got horny.”

One child, Ali, testified that Hassanein hit him with a knife for joking with a friend. When the prosecutor asked him about the location of the injury on his body, he showed it to him, but when asked whether he would like to be examined by a forensic doctor, he said no. He added that Hassanein used to slap and punch him. But after examination, the forensic report stated, “his overall body showed no signs of recent injuries.”

There are two very important points here that I wish to highlight. First, at this stage there is no mention at all of any of the defendants who were included in the case later. When I read the report of the secret investigations done by an officer at a later stage, he claimed that his initial investigations indicated that the first four defendants had partners. I looked at the official record of his initial investigations, and there is not a single word in them about partners.

There is another important point in relation to these other defendants. When asked about the painter Sherif Talaat — who had a studio in the apartment where he gave paid lessons to students from outside the foundation in return for giving free lessons to the foundation’s children — all the children said that he had absolutely nothing to do with the foundation’s management or its administration, and that his only role was to teach them painting. They also unanimously agreed that Amira Farag used to cook for them and give them lessons, and that she had nothing to do with the administration, either.

In the records of the final investigation, the officer acknowledges a fact known to everyone — namely, that the foundation’s activities, like providing education and medical care and taking children to parks, were noble. However, he explained that such activities were used to give legitimacy to the foundation’s criminal activities, and to convince funders to donate money to the foundation, which he claimed the defendants would embezzle. As for claims of filming children naked and sexual assault, there is absolutely no evidence for this in any of the materials confiscated from the foundation. How did the officer back up these allegations amid the absence of evidence? This is what he had to say: “The accused saved the recordings on a USB kept in a secret place, but we were unable to find them.”

How on earth is it possible for the defendants to spend almost two years in pretrial detention given such weak evidence: unreliable juvenile confessions and investigations?

The foundation had published two sets of photos of the children — the first upon joining the foundation, and the second after being there a while. The same photos were broadcast on “Sitt al-Husn” to illustrate the difference in the children’s wellbeing. The investigating officer states in his report that the photos were shown at the American University in Cairo — although they were shown on a well-known Egyptian TV channel — and that they were used to exploit the children and steal the donations collected on their behalf. But again, the investigations do not mention anything about this money and its whereabouts. There is no evidence of such donations. We only know that Hegazy had donated LE10,000 of her own money to start this project.

Did you know that the accusations of stripping the children naked and tying them up with ropes, as claimed by Gouda in reference to Mohsen, were denied by that same child, yet accepted by the officer as evidence?

Did you know that the investigating officer based his accusations against the defendants on the fact that the foundation was based in a rented apartment on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, which is close to the police headquarters and Tahrir Square, thus claiming that their purpose was to instigate the kids to protest against the police?

Did you know that the only evidence the investigating officer found to prove the accusations of child abuse was a photo of Hassanein looking 10 years younger “wrestling” with a child? The child is the nephew of one of Hassanein’s friends. The child himself, who is now a young man, went to court to confirm the photo showed a make-believe wrestling joke and was taken in the presence of his family — but he was not allowed to testify. Additionally, all the children confirmed that they had never seen the child in the photo before. So what did the officer say about the photo when the prosecutor asked him about it? “This confirms what I am saying about those children having been sexually abused.”

The officers on this case are forever mentioning Hegazy’s American citizenship, even though she insisted during the investigations to keep the lawyer sent by the American Embassy out of the case, and she never asked the embassy to intervene in any way.

Please, go back to the photos of the children on the foundation’s Facebook page. Browse through them and look at the images of children who had left the foundation to go back to the streets and their old addictions being welcomed back after they decided to return. The photos of this welcoming celebration were widely circulated on social media before the raid.

Then let us read what the officer’s investigations say: “The foundation’s office is like a place of detention or prison, without any exits other than the apartment’s door.”

In another record, the officer said, “The investigations have proven that the first defendant [Hassanein] included some children in demonstrations, but the investigations were unable to find out how he used the children in these demonstrations.”

Another, dated May 10, 2014, includes a report by the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood, which claims some of the children were forced to participate in Muslim Brotherhood demonstrations. This report also recommends providing psychological therapy for all the children to recover from their stay at the foundation. But what are the bases of the accusations?

Other records starting May 9 state that two vigilant citizens — the neighbours of Hegazy and Hassanein — filed a report as soon as they read about their arrest in the newspapers, saying that they had seen the couple moving four travel suitcases in a state of extreme agitation. The police searched the suitcases. There were no Molotov cocktails, USBs or rockets to fire at the police. They only found papers, four T-shirts with “Kristi” written on them (a reference to a child who died in a demonstration against the Brotherhood when former President Mohamed Morsi was in power), a Vendetta mask, two T-shirts with the slogan “A safe square for all” (a slogan used in an anti-harassment campaign), 41 marbles, two slingshots and one clasp knife. In the prosecution’s records, Hassanein denied that the knife and the marbles belonged to him, and he confessed that he had owned the slingshot as a child. Both defendants confessed to owning the T-shirts and the masks, explaining that the marbles belonged to the previous tenants. Nevertheless, the officer asked the prosecutor to “unfold the evidence and confront the defendants with them.” At the end of the record, Hegazy and Hassanein are accused of possessing tools used for assault — “slingshots and glass marbles.”

There are so many parts of the children’s story in the official records that I wanted to include, but due to the limited space here, I will only mention a few significant ones.

When asked why he did not leave Hassanein when he took him by force to protests, Gomaa — the child who was with Aya in the television show— said: “Because if I left him, he would never take me back again in the foundation.” So the child was worried about getting kicked out, not of being detained there.

The forensic report says some of the children were bruised or had other injuries, which according to the kids (including Gomaa) were inflicted by the thugs who attacked the foundation before the police raid.

Some children repeated the official story in the police record at first, but then in later records — after they were assigned to care institutions away from police influence — they gave testimonies that do not incriminate the defendants. Some other children testified to what they actually witnessed. One testimony was particularly moving.

The child talked about the death of his loving mother, and how his father got married and sent him to live with his aunt in Cairo. The father then stopped sending him money, so the aunt refused to have him stay in her house. When he called his father, he told him, “I don’t care where you go, I don’t want you.” The child then talked about how much he suffered in Cairo, yet he says in his testimony that he was happy at the foundation.

When asked about why his testimony differed from those of the other children who made several accusations against the defendants, he said: “When I was outside [the prosecutor’s office], they told me to lie so that they’d let me go. But I said no, I will tell the truth.”

In Aya’s statement, when she was confronted with the children’s testimonies regarding detention, torture and sexual abuse, she said, “I had hoped to hear them say something else, and I have said everything frankly, there’s no reason for me to lie. I am proud of what I did, and the compensation I expect is God’s reward.”

I finally came across this line from the report of the prosecutor questioning of Hegazy: “Since the pen’s ink had run out, we saw it fit to replace it with a cartridge of blue ink.” Oh, how meticulous and honest of them!

This article has been translated and edited for clarity. You can read the original Arabic here.

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