Court acquits Egyptian charity workers in abuse case

Supporters broke into applause as the judge announced that Aya Hejazi, a US-Egyptian, her husband Mohamed Hassanein and six others were found not guilty on charges including human trafficking.

Aya Hijaz, a dual US-Egyptian citizen, is acquitted by an Egyptian court after nearly three years of detention over accusations related to running a foundation dedicated to helping street children, Cairo, Sunday,  April 16, 2017. AP Photo/Mohamed El Raai
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Cairo // A court in Cairo on Sunday acquitted eight charity workers who worked with street children and had been detained for nearly three years on human trafficking charges.

Supporters broke into applause as the judge announced that Aya Hijazi, a US-Egyptian, her husband Mohamed Hassanein and six others were found not guilty on charges including human trafficking, sexually exploiting children and failure to properly register a non-governmental organisation.

Ms Hijazi, who cofounded a charity to help Cairo street children, was arrested in May 2014 and has been in prison pending the outcome of the trial.

She and her co-defendants denied the charges and rights groups raised concerns they were not being allowed a fair trial.

Ms Hijazi’s supporters say she was targeted at a time when authorities were cracking down on civil society groups.

Reunited in the courtroom’s cage shortly before the verdict was read, Ms Hijazi and Mr Hassanein embraced, both of them smiled as they chatted while waiting for the judge.

When the verdict was read, supporters jumped up and cheered. The defendants sang as they left the courthouse for a prison vehicle that was to take them back for their final days in detention.

Taher Aboelnasr, Ms Hijazi’s lawyer, said the prosecution could appeal the verdict but that would not prevent the defendants’ release, which he said should happen this week.

He said the defendants would be released “probably on Tuesday or Wednesday”.

A senior White House official said ahead of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah ElSisi’s Washington visit last month that administration officials would raise Ms Hijazi’s case during the trip.

The prosecution alleged that children were sexually abused at the offices of the Belady Foundation, which Ms Hijazi cofounded with her husband in 2013.

The defence argued that evidence may have been tampered with and several prosecution witnesses later recanted their testimonies.

Human Rights Watch last month called the trial “nothing less than a travesty of justice”.

Outside the courtroom after the verdict, Ms Hijazi’s mother Naglaa Hosny said she was thrilled for her daughter and son-in-law.

“We want to give them another wedding,” she said.

Ms Hijazi’s mother said the couple was considering starting another charity but that she hoped they would instead go back to university.

* Agence France-Presse and Reuters