Dual Egyptian-US citizen Aya Hegazy and seven others were acquitted by Cairo Criminal Court on Sunday of charges stemming from their work at the Belady Foundation for Street Children, the nongovernmental organization Hegazy co-founded with her husband.
The defendants in the high profile case had faced seven charges, including operating an unlicensed organization, inciting street children to join pro-Muslim Brotherhood protests and sexually assaulting minors.
The defendants’ lawyer Taher Aboul Nasr told Mada Masr via telephone that Hegazy, her husband Mohamed Hassanein and the six others will be freed as soon as release procedures are completed, independent of whether prosecutors decide to appeal the verdict.
“We thank God and the effort of the defense team for the ruling” Aboul Nasr said.
Hegazy, Hassanein, Sherif Talaat and Amira Farag had been held in detention for more than three years since they were first detained in May 2014, after an individual submitted a report alleging that they had kidnapped his son. Security forces raided the Belady Foundation and placed all of the children who had been being provided care in the custody of orphanages.
A week after they were taken into custody, Zeinab Ramadan was arrested as she was accompanying the mother of one of the children to the orphanage where he had been placed following the raid. The prosecution accused her of working for an unlicensed organization and inciting children, according to lawyer Sameh Samir. However, Ramadan was released a week after her arrest pending trial.
In August 2014, Ibrahim Abd Rabbo, Karim Magdy and Mohamed al-Sayed, were arrested while attempting to film video testimony with several children who had provided what they alleged were false accounts to the prosecution. Rabbo, Magdy and Sayed were charged with using force and threatening a child in addition to trying to bribe a victim to change his testimony.
In December 2016, the court granted Amira Farag’s release on LE1,000 bail for medical reasons.
Hegazy and her family have denied all accusations against her and other Belady Foundation staff members.
The trial has been beset by multiple postponements, and, last May, Hegazy, Hassanein, Sherif Talaat and Amira Farag exceeded the two-year pretrial detention limit allowed by Egypt’s Criminal Procedure Code, a milestone the other defendants have also surpassed.
Hegazy’s trial and protracted detention have received heightened international attention, as she is a US citizen, a fact that prompted the White House to issue a statement last September calling for her release and pledging consular support after US officials met with her family.
In September 2016, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton called on President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to release Hegazy, during a meeting held in New York, a plea echoed later on in the month by a US congressmen.
However, Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shokry asserted that the charges that Hegazy faces are valid and “very serious,” during an interview with PBS Network last December.
“I think anyone would be interested to get to the bottom of accusations related to minors and abuse. So, I would challenge the issue of ‘bogus accusations.’ And I think it’s important to recognize the impartiality of the Egyptian judicial system,” Shoukry said, in response to the interviewer’s characterization of the charges that Hegazy faces as false.
The case was also broadly condemned by both national and international rights organizations. Last year, a joint statement of solidarity was signed by 25 local NGOs, calling for the immediate release of the Belady Foundation’s employees and volunteers for all charges leveled against them to be dropped.
“The Belady Foundation case reflects the continued targeting and framing of young people and is an example of the crackdown on the freedom of association and civil society and a continuation of the use of pre-trial detention as punishment,” the organizations asserted.
Several other international human rights organizations, including EuroMed rights group and the Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales, and most recently Human Rights Watch, described the trial as “bizarre,” condemned the defendants’ continued detention and called for their release and a fair trial.
Doubt has been cast on the initial accusations in the case as details emerged over the course of the past three years. One of the children who testified against Hegazy sent her a letter in prison, apologizing to her and her colleagues and stating that he his testimony had been forcibly given. A statement given to the Al-Arabiya television network by the head of police who had carried out the May 2014 raid at the organization cast a further shadow on the proceedings, as he acknowledged that the prosecution had not authorized the raid, and that the building was neither locked, nor bore any signs that children had been held their against their will.
Additionally, eyewitnesses’ accounts filmed by police regarding alleged abuse stood in stark contrast to statements they had previously made praising the foundation’s virtues during a television special on the Belady Foundation. Many of the eyewitnesses also exhibited discomfort and unease during their filmed testimonies, prompting doubt as to the authenticity.
Forensic reports also impugned claims of sexual abuse against the NGO.
Hegazy, a George Mason University graduate, and Hassanein founded the Belady Foundation in September 2013 to organize projects and campaigns on sanitation, combatting sexual violence and care for street children.