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Cairo Court Drops Child Abuse Charges Against Egyptian-American Woman

Egyptian-American aid worker Aya Hijazi was held for nearly three years without a verdict, in what human rights groups have called an "arbitrary detention."

A court in Cairo acquitted Egyptian-American Aya Hijazi of human trafficking and abuse charges Sunday, along with her husband and other aid workers.

Hijazi was working to help street children three years ago when she was charged with human trafficking and sexual abuse at the shelter she and her husband founded. The verdict has been postponed repeatedly as the aid workers continued to be held, in spite of a government forensic report showing no signs of abuse while the children were in the shelter.

According to Reuters, Egyptian law states that the maximum period for pretrial detention is 24 months, while the couple has been held for 33 months.

The case is seen as part of a larger crackdown by the Egyptian government on NGOs, particularly those that receive foreign funding. As NPR's Leila Fadel has reported, the couple was arrested at a time when civil society organizations were being "demonized and painted as foreign agents."

Hijazi's mother spoke with NPR in 2015, saying that the children her daughter had been helping were "back in the streets" while her daughter was being held without trial.

The case has drawn attention from a number of human rights organizations and activists. Last month, when a verdict had yet again been postponed, the deputy Middle East director for Human Rights Watch called the case a "travesty of justice." The case was also raised during Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi's visit to the White House earlier this month.

Hijazi and her husband, Mohamed Hassanein, founded the Belady Foundation in 2013 to provide services to troubled children in Cairo. Her mother told NPR that Hijazi did not allow her volunteers to refer to the children as "Owlad Shawaraa" — street children — and instead called them Owlad Beladi — the children of my country.

The New York Times reported Sunday that the couple hopes to return to their work after their release, though they aren't sure the government will allow that.

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