WASHINGTON — Aya Hijazi grew up in the U.S., but after college she returned to her native Egypt to start a foundation dedicated to helping children. That, her family says, made her a target of Egypt’s authoritarian regime and has landed her in jail on trumped up charges for the last two years.
On Thursday, Hijazi’s family and two northern Virginia congressmen called for her release at a Capitol Hill press conference. They spotlighted Hijazi’s plight and sought to pressure Egyptian authorities.
“The Egyptian government mistakes American resolve,” said Democrat Gerry Connolly, who acknowledged the important strategic partnership between the U.S. and Egypt in confronting terrorists. “They think that because we care about the broader, 30,000-foot relationship, we won’t get into the nitty-gritty about individual human rights. Wrong. This case will continue to be elevated.”
Hijazi, 29, grew up in Falls Church, Virginia, and is a dual citizen of the U.S. and Egypt. She received a degree in conflict resolution from George Mason University in 2009, and then returned to her native Egypt.
She was running a foundation there called Belady dedicated to helping street children when she and her husband, Mohammed Hassanein, were arrested in May 2014.
Egyptian authorities accuse Hijazi of abusing children in her care and engaging in human trafficking, kidnapping, sexual exploitation and torture. But the trial has been delayed multiple times on what human rights groups say are absurd pretexts, like inability to turn on a computer at a court hearing.
Human rights groups have said the charges are fabricated and part of a crackdown by Egypt’s government on civil society.
Rep. Don Beyer, D-Virginia, who counts Hijazi as a constituent, said no evidence has been produced to support the allegations. He said the prolonged detention violates Egypt’s own laws guaranteeing a speedy trial.
“Aya should be praised as a hero, someone who has championed the neglected,” Beyer said.
Hijazi’s sister, Alaa Hijazi, said Thursday that her sister has generally been in good spirits during her detention, but she couldn’t say how long that will last.
“We’re worried that Aya’s resolve is beginning to crack,” Alaa Hijazi said.
She called the charges against her sister “absolutely absurd and unfounded.” They only make sense, she said, in the context of the Egyptian government’s campaign against intellectuals, academics and others that it deems a threat to its authority.
Wade McMullen, a lawyer with Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, has assisted Hijazi. He said she has been banned from seeing her husband or conversing with other inmates during her detention.
Calls and emails to the Egyptian embassy seeking comment on Hijazi’s case were not returned.
Beyer said the State Department has been doing what it normally does to provide support in situations when U.S. citizens face charges abroad, but the time has come to do more.
“There’s been a lot of jawboning going on, but so far it hasn’t freed Aya,” he said.
Another hearing in the case is scheduled for November.