A Cairo court’s decision on March 23, 2017 to postpone issuing its verdict in the case of Aya Hijazi and the Belady Foundation for Street Children casts a further shadow on the ability of Egypt’s judicial system to deliver justice in this bizarre case, Human Rights Watch said Friday.
Hijazi and her co-defendants, including her husband, have been held in custody since their arrest in May 2014, well beyond the two-year limit for pretrial and provisional detention under Egyptian law, and the frequently postponed proceedings have been marked by serious fair trial violations. The court provided no reason for postponing its verdict.
Hijazi, an Egyptian-American, and her husband, Mohamed Hassanein, an Egyptian citizen, are co-founders of the Belady Foundation, which provided services for Cairo street children. Police raided the foundation on May 1, 2014, without a judicial warrant, confiscated laptops and other equipment, and detained Hijazi, Hassanein, and several others, including a woman who provided meals, an artist who shared the premises, and the children present. Authorities charged the adults with human trafficking, sexual exploitation of children, using children in anti-government protests, and operating an unlicensed organization.
“The case of Aya Hijazi and her co-defendants has been nothing less than a travesty of justice,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director for Human Rights Watch. “Defendants have been unable to meet privately with lawyers, hearings have been repeatedly adjourned for long periods, while the court has routinely rejected, without explanation, numerous requests for release on bail, resulting in what appears to amount to arbitrary detention.”
The proceedings against Hijazi and the others have violated the defendants’ rights to prepare a defense, to examine the evidence and witnesses against them, and to be tried without undue delay, Human Rights Watch said.
The arrests followed unfounded allegations by an Egyptian man that his son was being held without his consent on the foundation’s premises. A person familiar with the case said that the boy had never been at Belady and was later found in another governorate, something a journalist’s review of trial records appeared to corroborate.
At a minimum, the authorities should immediately release Hijazi and the others on bail or explain why their continued incarceration is warranted under the law, Human Rights Watch said. International standards require using pretrial detention only as a “last resort” to prevent flight or risks to victims or public safety.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is scheduled to meet President Donald Trump in Washington on April 3rd. If neither president raises Aya Hijazi’s unjust and lengthy detention it will be yet another indication of their mutual avoidance of pressing human rights concerns, Human Rights Watch said.
Egyptian human rights organizations that have monitored the case reported that the defendants were held at an undisclosed location for two days after their arrest. The first hearing in the case, nearly 10 months later, in mid-March, 2015, was immediately postponed, followed by numerous further postponements, often without explanation.
A person familiar with the court proceedings said that the defendants have not been allowed to meet privately with their lawyers at any point since their arrest or during trial proceedings. Consultations have been limited to exchanges in the prison visiting area in the presence of guards and others and through the cage in the courtroom in which all defendants are held. Most consultations occurred through the defendants’ families.
The entire trial has been held in closed sessions in the judge’s chambers rather than in public, which the judge said was due to the sexual assault allegations. In at least one instance, trial observers reported, the judge apparently met with the prosecution in his chambers but defense lawyers had no opportunity to approach him or to submit requests for bail or make other applications.
Of the prosecution’s 11 listed witnesses, only 1 appeared in court, in addition to the policeman who led the raid and a forensic examiner. The court apparently rebuffed defense counsel requests to cross-examine other purported prosecution witnesses. Their statements were nonetheless part of the prosecutor’s closing statement, said the person familiar with the court proceedings. The prosecution presented none of the children as witnesses, and several children have since recanted the testimony police recorded immediately after the raid. One of the children called in court as a defense witness stated that the police beat him to coerce him to say that he had suffered abuse at Belady, and a defense lawyer alleged in court that police had similarly abused other children.
The forensic expert’s report on which the prosecution relied for its allegation of sexual abuse was based on anal examinations of a number of children for evidence of sexual activity, a discredited practice that violates the international prohibition against torture. Egyptian human rights organizations that followed the case said that the forensic examinations found no evidence of coerced sexual activity. They said that in cases in which the expert claimed to find evidence of sexual activity, there was no indication that the sexual activity was not consensual or had even occurred at the foundation. One boy, called as a defense witness, apparently told the court that in his case it was consensual and that the foundation in no way encouraged or condoned it.
The prosecution claimed that its “technical committee” found two pornographic films on a confiscated Belady computer. The prosecutor in his closing statement referred to “foreign movies with sexual scenes.” The defense said that the laptops had not been properly sealed as evidence and were vulnerable to tampering. The defense lawyers were never given a copy of the technical committee’s report of its findings.
“The prosecution and trial of Aya Hijazi and her co-defendants, on top of all the due process violations, subjected children to anal examinations and published their identities and videos of their interrogation, and denied them a meaningful chance to defend themselves,” Stork said. “A trial that is supposedly about protecting children has amounted to years of state-sanctioned abuse against all concerned.”