April 16 (UPI) -- An Egyptian court acquitted and freed a U.S. aid worker Sunday after she spent nearly three years in pretrial detention in Cairo.
The courtroom erupted in cheers after Aya Hijazi, 30, was cleared of child abuse and human trafficking charges. Cairo Criminal Court Judge Mohamed el-Feqqi also dropped all charges against her Egyptian husband, Mohamed Hassanein, and six other defendants.
Hijazi, who has dual U.S. and Egyptian citizenship, was arrested in May 2014 with others at the Belady Foundation, a non-profit organization she founded to care for street children in Cairo. Hijazi grew up in Virginia and was an undergraduate at George Mason's School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution in Fairfax, Va., before moving to Cairo to work with street children.
Government prosecutors accused the couple of human trafficking and sexually abusing children in their care. The potential sentences ranged from five years' hard labor to life in prison.
The couple had been held beyond the two-year limit in pretrial detention.
Human rights groups said the charges were fabricated, and that the group was arrested only as part of a broader crackdown, at the same time, against political dissent.
"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, before the verdict. "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."
A forensic report concluded abuse against children occurred before 2014. And the defense argued that evidence was tampered with.
The defendants sat in a metal cage Sunday like other times during the trial. The hearings were the only opportunity for the couple -- married one year before they were detained -- to see each other.
They were released after the court ruling.
Hassanein said they hoped to return to their work with street children.
"We promised them that we could come back," he said to a New York Times reporter while speaking from the courtroom cage. "Children are wealth, and they were strong while we have been in prison. We want to go back to the streets."
But he said he was unsure if the government would allow them to resume that work.
"Foreign funding is just a reason," Mohamed Zaree of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies said to The New York Times. "It's a way of targeting anyone who has an independent voice, or is critical of the current regime."
In 2015 Rep. Dan Beyer, D-Va., said Hijazi "should be praised as a hero, someone who has championed the neglected."
Senior American officials raised her case during Sisi's visit, Hijazi's brother Basel Hijazi said in a phone interview with The New York Times from Ireland.