BEIRUT — During nearly three years spent shuttling between an Egyptian jail and a Cairo courtroom cage in a case dismissed by human rights groups as “bizarre,” Aya Hijazi's American citizenship did not seem to count for much.
She was a dual national at a time when Egypt was gripped by the widest-ranging crackdown in its modern history. Her case had become a national scandal, cast by state media as a victory of law and order. And despite calls for her release, the Obama administration seemed to have little leverage with the Sissi regime to make it happen.
But on Friday, she entered the White House as a free woman, having flown home on a U.S. government plane after being acquitted in a Cairo court.
The court's decision came after months of backroom negotiations between the Trump administration and representatives of Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi.
Hijazi, 30, grew up in Falls Church, Va., graduating from George Mason University before moving to Egypt for further study. She went on to found the Belady Foundation, an organization that aims to shelter and rehabilitate marginalized street children.
As a crackdown on civil society groups was gathering pace in May 2014, police raided the Belady Foundation's Cairo premises. Hijazi was detained alongside her husband, Mohamed Hassanein, and others at the foundation. She would have to wait four months to even find out what she had been arrested for.
Despite flimsy evidence, the group was eventually charged on seven counts, including operating an unlicensed organizations, inciting street children to join pro-Muslim Brotherhood protests and sexually assaulting minors. The group denied all the charges, and human rights lawyers said the evidence against them was fabricated.
The state's own forensic report found no evidence that any of the children in their care had been sexually abused. Reports suggested that a boy they had allegedly kidnapped had never been to the Belady Foundation, and he was later found in another province.
As Hijazi's imprisonment wore on, the case only unraveled further.
A senior Interior Ministry official told the al-Arabiya television network that the police raid on the Belady Foundation had not been authorized through proper channels, and that his officers had found no signs that children were being held against their will.
At one point, one of the children who had testified against Hijazi even wrote to her in prison, apologizing for a statement that he said had been given under duress.
Her trial was repeatedly postponed, often without a clear reason. When Hijazi did appear in court, she cut a quiet figure in the defendant's cage. In one memorable image from a hearing last month, she appeared in a different world altogether, lost in the pages of Maya Angelou's memoir “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”
In a statement published after her acquittal, Human Rights Watch was quick to point out that her case was not unusual. “Aya Hijazi, her husband, and their colleagues are finally free, but the system that subjected them to a travesty of justice for nearly three years remains unchanged,” said Joe Stork, the organization's deputy Middle East director.