By Nourhan Fahmy
CAIRO, Feb. 4 (Aswat Masriya) - A number of rights groups denounced Wednesday the ongoing pretrial detention of Aya Hegazy, her husband Mohammed Hassanein, and five others in connection with the case against the Belady Foundation for Street Children.
In May 2014, police raided the offices of the Belady Foundation pursuant to a complaint filed by a man who alleged that his missing son had been held in the foundation's premises in Downtown Cairo. They searched the office without a warrant from the prosecution, arrested Hegazy, Hassanein and two other volunteers present at the time of the raid as well as 17 children, the rights groups stated.
Marking 22 months in pretrial detention on charges carrying a life sentence, 25 civil society organisations issued a statement describing the case as an example of the "continued suppression of volunteer action and the quashing of youth and civil society initiatives."
The organisations, including the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Information (CIHRS) and the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), demanded that all persons held in connection with the case be released and all charges against them dropped ahead of the upcoming fourth trial session, scheduled to take place on Feb. 13.
Aya's brother Basel Hegazy told Aswat Masriya that trials have been repeatedly postponed for a long time with no apparent reason for holding the detainees under extended custody.
The defendants were referred to court in September 2014 by late Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat on charges that included establishing and operating a criminal group with the purpose of human trafficking, using threat and deception against the children, sexually assaulting children using force, sexually exploiting children, fraud and kidnapping. The charges also included inciting children to participate in demonstrations and physically torturing children.
The statement issued by rights organisation notes that the forensic report to the prosecution disproved most of the charges as there were no signs found on any of the children indicating torture or sexual assault. In addition, witnesses' testimonies from volunteers and visitors stated that the children were treated "humanely and honourably," the statement added.
The defendants have remained in custody pending trial, with the past two sessions having been postponed on procedural grounds. The organisations considered this a means to harass the detainees and prolong their detention.
The first trial session was postponed to review the case file, then the second session was postponed due to the absence of witnesses and the third due to the inability of defendants to arrive to court on time, according to Basel.
"Until this moment, no witnesses have been heard and the defence lawyers have yet to make their arguments, so there is no progress in the case," Basel said.
As the defendants approach the two-year pre-trial detention limit set by Egyptian law, Basel commented that upcoming trial sessions will include hearing witnesses and listening to defence arguments, which will likely mean that they will exceed the pretrial detention limit, in which case the lawyer would file a request for release. But this remains entirely in the hands of the judge.
Egyptian-American Aya Hegazy established the Belady Foundation in September 2013, with the aim of providing shelter for street children, developing their skills and securing a safe environment for them, according to the foundation’s statement, released following the arrests.
Since December 2013, measures had already been taken to register Belady Foundation as a civic association under the Minister of Social Solidarity. Despite following requested procedures, the foundation faced bureaucratic hurdles obstructing its official registration before the incident, the statement added.
Following the arrests, the ministry froze the registration process pending the outcome of the case and refused to give defence lawyers the Foundation's file which would prove that it had completed most of the registration procedures.
The rights organisations's statement contended that the ministry's intransigence towards Belady violates Law no. 84/2002 on Associations and Foundations, which grants associations the right to start working given that they had not received any statement of rejection from the ministry on the registration process.
Commenting on the conditions of Hegazy's detention, Basel said that they are granted weekly visits and that the authorities of the Qanater Women's prison have been treating the visitors as well as the detainees with respect.
Hegazy, who had studied Law in Cairo University and conflict resolution in George Mason University, decided to return to Egypt after the 25 January Revolution, hoping to actively engage in social development.
"Aya's strength is unwavering despite her prolonged detention," said Basel, "she knows that she was on the right track and was arrested for doing something that she believed in."