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U.S. Couple Held In Egyptian Prison For 1 Year Over Unfounded Child Abuse


Among the thousands picked up in sweeping arrests in Egypt over the last couple of years is an Egyptian-American woman named Ayah Hijazi. She's been held in jail for more than a year without a trial. Hijazi went to George Mason University in Virginia and moved with her family to Egypt where she decided to help some of Cairo's poorest residents. NPR's Leila Fadel has her story.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: When Ayah Hijazi moved to Egypt, she wanted to do something to help the children she saw sleeping in Cairo's garbage-strewn streets, exposed to abuse, so Hijazi opened an organization, Beladi - my country - with her Egyptian husband in 2013.

NAGLAA HOSNY: She was very strict about no slapping, no beating, no cursing, no cussing of these kids. And she did not allow any of the volunteers to call them Owlad Shawaraa - street kids. And she told them they are Owlad Beladi - the children of my country.

FADEL: That's Naglaa Hosny, Hijazi's mother. Soon after the organization opened, her Egyptian-American daughter was detained with her husband and five others. Hosny describes the interrogation after the arrest.

HOSNY: He hit her hard on her neck. That made her fall. She did not cry. She's a tough one. But when Wakil al Niaba started reading the accusations, that's when she started crying.

FADEL: Wakil al Niaba means the prosecutor. The accusations include molestation and holding children against their will. Hijazi's case was splashed across local newspapers, describing her as an American abusing Egyptian children and paying them to attack security forces. It was at a time civil society organizations were being shut down, demonized and painted as foreign agents. The shelter was near Tahrir Square, the center of many of Egypt's protests.

Hijazi's family and observers familiar with the case say there is no evidence to back up the accusations. She's had support from noted Egyptian comedian Bassem Yousef, and there's a growing online campaign calling for her release. A government forensic report provided by Hijazi's lawyer concluded there were no signs of sexual abuse when the children would've been at the shelter. Suzanne Sadiq is the mother of one of the runaways that Hijazi and her husband were taking care of, and she's been advocating for their release.

SUZANNE SADIQ: (Speaking Arabic).

FADEL: She says her son ran away from home, and Beladi took care of him.

SADIQ: (Speaking Arabic).

FADEL: "My son wasn't kidnapped or abused," she says. "They taught him to read and write." Her son, who was taken in with other boys and questioned, said the older boys were beaten and forced to accuse the couple of abuse on camera. Back at Naglaa Hosny's home, Hosny shows me a television interview with her daughter, now 28, and some of the children that she helped before the arrest.

HOSNY: This is Ayah, and this is Mazen, who wants to be a doctor.

FADEL: The children are wearing dress shirts and talking about why they ran away from abusive homes. Ayah sits nearby. Then Hosny shows me pictures. One is of her son-in-law goofing around with the teens, sitting on one of the older boy's shoulders. She showed it to the prosecutor, and he saw something else.

HOSNY: He tells me, yes, this is the way he tortures the kids. He makes them carry him on his - on their shoulder.

FADEL: They look happy. They're...

HOSNY: Exactly.

FADEL: The jailed woman's mother says that embassy officials have made visits to her daughter, but she wants them to do more. They wrote to Senator Tim Kaine from Virginia, asking for support. Kaine's office inquired with the State Department and also signed onto a letter with other senators expressing concern about American political prisoners in Egypt. The U.S. Embassy in Cairo says it's following the case closely. And as for the kids that Ayah Hijazi was helping...

HOSNY: The kids are back on the streets.

FADEL: Leila Fadel, NPR News, Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.