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American children's advocate languishes in Egyptian jail as Trump to meet Sisi

It is unclear whether Trump will raise plight of imprisoned Americans with Sisi in their first official meeting
Leaders Trump and Sisi to meet on 3 April (AFP)

Aya Hijazi has been confined in an Egyptian prison cell for almost three years. Police arrested the Egyptian American activist on 1 May 2014 in a raid on the Belady Foundation, an organisation she founded for Cairo street children.

The Egyptian government then charged Hijazi, her Egyptian husband and six other employees of the foundation with human trafficking and sexual exploitation. She was held in pretrial detention for more than two years and authorities barred her from meeting privately with her lawyer.

Human rights advocates and elected officials say there is no evidence for the charges lodged against Hijazi. Her case has been riddled with delays and legal experts say her continued detention appears to be punitive, that Hijazi is being “denied her liberty arbitrarily in violation of international law”.

Now, advocates for Hijazi and six other Americans jailed in Egypt are ramping up public pressure on the White House and the Egyptian government ahead of a 3 April meeting between US President Donald Trump and Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

They want Trump to pressure Sisi to free Hijazi and the other imprisoned Americans who have been swept up in the Egyptian government’s relentless crackdown on civil society.

Activists launched a Freedom First campaign by posting flyers in Washington DC featuring the names and faces of some of the more than 40,000 Egyptians in prison.

On 2 April, they are holding a vigil in the US capital featuring a speech by Mohamed Soltan, an Egyptian American who was tortured and jailed for almost two years before being freed.

But it is unclear whether Trump will raise the plight of imprisoned Americans to Sisi in their first official meeting. The New York Times reported 1 April that under Trump, the US will no longer criticise Egypt in public over human rights issues, and that the White House "aims to address [Hijazi's] captivity in a way that would maximise the chances of its being resolved".

The US president has praised Sisi, whose security forces have killed, tortured and detained tens of thousands of Egyptians, as a “fantastic guy”.

Sisi was the first world leader to congratulate Trump on his election win, and the Egyptian president has high hopes that he will be welcomed by the new administration after being snubbed by former President Barack Obama, who never granted a White House meeting to the Egyptian leader and temporarily cut off US military aid to Cairo.

“The Trump administration wants cooperation with Egypt against ISIS, possibly on some regional peace initiative on Israel, and maybe Libya,” said Michele Dunne, the director and a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle East Program. “I don’t know how much the visit is going to get into domestic issues in Egypt from the administration's point of view.”

Dunne added: “It’s possible that for the moment we will see the push on these issues more from Congress than from the administration.”

Congressional representatives have spoken out for Hijazi to be freed.

'Securing her release is deeply important to her family, to her friends, to the community of which she was a part, and to me'

-Congressman Don Beyer

“Securing her release is deeply important to her family, to her friends, to the community of which she was a part, and to me,” Congressman Don Beyer, the Democratic representative from the Virginia district Hijazi is from, told MEE via email. “The White House and the State Department should bring pressure to bear on her behalf, and use any diplomatic means at their disposal to secure her release.”

Thanks to a sustained public campaign for Hijazi’s freedom, high-level US officials have also advocated for her. Obama administration officials repeatedly raised Hijazi’s case with their Egyptian counterparts, although the Hijazi family has complained in the past that Washington could have been doing more.

Hanaa Soltan, sister of Mohamed Soltan, told Middle East Eye that she has shared what she learned during her family’s ordeal with the relatives of other Americans detained in Egypt.

The most fundamental piece of advice she offered is that it’s important for the American public to get to know their family member in order to put a human face on an issue taking place thousands of miles away.

In the case of her brother, awareness and public pressure worked, and the Obama administration secured his release in May 2015.

“When the White House makes it clear that the health and well being of a US citizen is a top priority, I don’t think that messaging goes away,” said Soltan. “If it's on the agenda and the White House makes it a priority and follows up on it, I don’t think there’s a way to manoeuvre around that.”

In September of last year, then-US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power met with Hijazi's family.

The State Department says it is closely tracking Hijazi’s continued detention, and that it is concerned with delays in her trial. On 23 March, a Cairo court decided to postpone issuing a verdict on Hijazi until at least 16 April.

“We join others in calling for a prompt resolution to her case and for her immediate release,” Nicole Thompson, a State Department spokesperson, told MEE in an emailed statement. “We are providing all possible consular assistance to Ms Hijazi. We meet with her frequently,” and US officials have attended all of her court hearings.

Still, the question remains: Will President Trump get serious with Sisi over the jailing of Hijazi?

In the past, the US has withheld some assistance from the Egyptian government over human rights concerns. In October 2013, after a military coup deposed Egypt’s first elected president and security forces massacred protesters, the Obama administration suspended delivery of some weapons and equipment. But Washington restored that military aid in 2015.

The Trump administration, however, has shown little interest in linking human rights concerns with US military aid.

In late March, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson decided to jettison human rights conditions attached to a sale of fighter jets to Bahrain, a key US ally that has launched its own repressive crackdown on pro-democracy protesters. That decision could bode ill for the prospect of using US military assistance to Egypt as leverage to free Hijazi and other Americans.

According to Joe Stork, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division, the Trump administration is “embracing” a regime “in which torture is once again the order of the day”.

“The Sisi government is just running roughshod over every human rights concern,” said Stork. “There’s been no public remonstrance from anyone in the Trump administration, and no reason to think there’s been anything in private either.”