09.28.16

Statement On Aya Hijazi

Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy
On
Aya Hijazi
Congressional Record

September 27, 2016

Mr. LEAHY. Mr. President, I want to speak about a matter in Egypt, a long-time ally of the United States, a country with a rich history and culture, but whose people have suffered for years due to corrupt, repressive governments and an anemic economy that stagnates under excessive statist control. This is the situation despite more than $75 billion in U.S. economic and military aid for Egypt over the past 50 years.

Today, more than five years after public protests led to the resignation of President Mubarak, followed by the election of the Muslim Brotherhood, the military-supported coup that forcibly removed and imprisoned President Morsi and thousands of his followers, and the election that brought President al-Sisi, a former army general, to power, the United States and Egypt are struggling to preserve a long history of security cooperation.

That cooperation is important to the Middle East region as a whole, but U.S.-Egypt relations face increasing challenges as President al-Sisi tightens his grip on power by persecuting political opponents, silencing members of the media -- including deporting American and other foreign journalists who criticize his policies -- and imprisoning representatives of civil society.

The brutal torture and killing of Giulio Regeni, an Italian student and journalist who many believe was an innocent victim of the Egyptian police, occurred only four months after the Egyptian army attacked a convoy of tourists in September 2015, killing twelve and injuring ten, including an American who continues to suffer from her injuries for which she has received no compensation.

Just last week, a court in Cairo froze the assets of some of Egypt’s most prominent human rights defenders in an attempt to silence them and put their organizations out of business. The State Department responded by urging the Egyptian Government to ease restrictions on association and expression.

These and other incidents have cast a dark cloud over efforts to find a common way forward with the al-Sisi government.

In May 2015, after repeated appeals by me, Secretary of State Kerry, and others, the Egyptian Government finally released Mohammed Soltan, a young Egyptian-American who was imprisoned, along with his father, for nearly two years. His “crime,” if one can call it that, was taking part in a public protest. In return for his release he was forced to give up his Egyptian citizenship, a Hobson’s choice that no citizen of any country should have to make.

In the meantime, on May 1, 2014, the government arrested Aya Hijazi, 29 years old and also an Egyptian-American, whose husband, an Egyptian citizen, was also arrested, along with Sherif Talaat Mohammed, Amira Farag, and eventually Ibrahim Abd Rabbo, Karim Magdi, and Mohammed al-Sayyed Mohammed, for operating a nonprofit organization called the Belady Foundation, which is dedicated to helping abandoned and homeless children.

Backing up for a moment: Aya’s mother and father came to the United States to pursue master’s degrees and because Aya’s grandmother, who lived in Virginia, wanted her family nearby. Three of Aya’s uncles, an aunt and their families live in Houston and are all American citizens. Aya grew up here, went to middle school and high school in Virginia, and graduated from George Mason University. At George Mason she was a volunteer for “Search for Common Ground,” a respected peacebuilding organization based in Washington.

After graduating, Aya moved to Cairo where she met Mohammed Hassanein, who she married, and who, like Aya, wanted to be involved in social work.Together they founded “Belady,” which means “our country,” and which Aya and the members of her organization call “an island of humanity.” That same year Aya was accepted to study at the American University in Cairo, a prestigious institution that receives funding from the U.S. Government, focusing on social work and children’s welfare. But she and her husband were arrested before she began her studies.

The charges against them are as salacious as they are farcical: sexually abusing children and paying them to participate in anti-government demonstrations. Since then, Aya, her husband, and the five Belady volunteers have been in prison. After more than two years the government has yet to disclose a shred of evidence to support the allegations, and Aya, her husband, and the other defendants are still awaiting a fair, public trial and a chance to defend themselves.

Aya Hijazi’s case fits a pattern. We have seen it time and again, not only in Egypt but in other repressive societies where governments are unaccountable and abuse the judicial process to silence dissent and intimidate those who are perceived, rightly or wrongly, to be engaged in activities that may reflect poorly on the authorities.

We all want relations with Egypt to improve, just as we want the Egyptian people to enjoy the rights and opportunities they deserve. With ISIS and other extremist groups infiltrating throughout the Middle East and beyond, impoverished Egyptian youths, who have few educational and professional options, are particularly vulnerable to ISIS recruitment.

But the more governments curtail the rights and ability of people with grievances to express themselves and to seek redress through peaceful means, the more likely it is that they will resort to violence. This is not a new concept. Anyone who has read the Declaration of Independence understands it. It is what ultimately brought about the downfall of President Mubarak.

The Egyptian Government has imprisoned Aya without trial for more than 850 days. That alone is inexcusable and a violation of Egyptian law, which holds that no one can be subjected to pre-trial detention for more than two years without being released with or without bail. On February 3, 2016, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights published a petition signed by 25 Egyptian human rights organizations against the detention of the Belady founders and volunteers. On May 20, 2016, the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights organization submitted Aya’s case to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, seeking her release. On May 21, Aya’s trial date was postponed yet again, to November 19, 2016. Last week, White House officials called for her release.

Aya has suffered emotionally and physically, she is often prohibited from writing to or receiving correspondence from her family, and her reputation, and that of the other defendants as well as her organization, has been tarnished by unproven allegations. She and the others should be immediately released. Absent proof, made available for all to see, that they have committed a punishable offense the charges should be dismissed.

Egypt was among the 48 countries that voted for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1948. That is a vote to be proud of, but the al-Sisi government’s persecution of Aya Hijazi and others who have been subjected to lengthy imprisonment without trial, or whose only offense is to criticize government corruption and abuse or to participate in nonviolent social activism, makes a mockery of Egypt’s vote.

The Universal Declaration, among other rights, includes the following:

  • Article 9: No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.
  • Article 10: Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.
  • Article 11(1): Everyone charged with a penal offense has the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defense.
  • Article 19: Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
  • Article 20: Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

Each of these articles has been violated in Aya Hijazi’s case.

Mr. President, on January 20, 2017, the next president of the United States will take the oath of office. That is 116 days from today. The next president will immediately face every imaginable challenge, foreign and domestic, including the instability and violence in the Middle East and North Africa.

I therefore urge the Government of Egypt, in the remaining months of the Obama Administration, and in particular President al-Sisi who also has a daughter named Aya and who I believe, if he examined this case, would agree that Aya Hijazi does not belong in prison, to recognize this opportunity and take steps to enable our next president to immediately engage with Egypt in a manner that brings our countries closer together, not farther apart. A key step would be the satisfactory resolution of the cases of Aya Hijazi, her husband and the Belady volunteers, and of United States nongovernmental organizations that have been prevented from working in Egypt on behalf of the Egyptian people.

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