A court in Egypt has acquitted an American-Egyptian woman and seven others who worked with street children and had been detained for years. The case drew alarm from both Washington and international rights groups.
After three years in detention, Aya Hijazi, her husband and six other charity workers were acquitted in a Cairo court on Sunday.
All were found not guilty on charges that included human trafficking, sexually exploiting children and failure to properly register a non-governmental organization.
Hijazi, a 30-year-old dual US-Egyptian citizen, co-founded Belady, an NGO that seeks to provide shelter and promote a better life for street children. She had been in custody for 33 months, violating Egyptian law which states that the maximum period of pretrial detention is 24 months.
The case drew censure from international human rights organizations as well as pressure from the US government. Hijazi and her co-defendants denied the charges while rights groups raised concerns that they were not being given a fair trial.
Hijazi and her husband, Mohamed Hassanein, vowed to continue their charity work following the verdict.
"We were delayed for three years ... starting today, God willing, there won't be any children without shelter," Hassanein told reporters.
"Humanity became free, and the dream doesn't die. On the contrary, the dream becomes stronger," Hijazi said.
Hijazi's Egyptian lawyer, Taher Abol Nasr, said that she would likely remain in detention for up to three days while her acquittal is processed.
Although the prosecution can still appeal the verdict, Nasr expects that all defendants will be freed by the end of the week.
US Representative Don Beyer of Virginia, the state where Hijazi grew up and went to university, hailed the verdict on Twitter, writing: "Such joyful news that has been a long time coming! So happy for Aya, her family, her friends, everyone who worked for her release!"
Beyer was one of several members of Congress who called on Egypt to release Hijazi. Her acquittal comes two weeks after Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi met with US President Donald Trump in Washington.
Hejazi's supporters say that she and her co-defendants were targeted at a time when authorities were cracking down on civil society groups, trying to portray protesters as foreign agents.
Since toppling President Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood, Sisi's government has cracked down on the opposition, jailing thousands and killing hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters. The arrests have widened to include secular and liberal activists.
"Aya Hijazi, her husband, and their colleagues are finally free, but the system that subjected them to a travesty of justice for nearly three years remains unchanged," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
rs/kl (AP, AFP, Reuters)