Posted : APRIL 21, 2017



WASHINGTON — The Trump administration flew Aya Hijazi, an Egyptian-American aid worker, home to the United States on Thursday evening after negotiating her release from three years of captivity in Egypt on charges of child abuse and human trafficking, two senior administration officials said.

Ms. Hijazi’s case had become an international symbol of Egypt’s treatment of aid workers, and President Trump had been criticized by human rights advocates for not publicly raising her plight during an Oval Office meeting with President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt early this month.

But the two administration officials said that despite the public silence, the United States had quietly secured a promise by Egyptian officials for her release before Mr. Sisi arrived at the White House, efforts that culminated over the weekend when a court cleared her. Ms. Hijazi, who grew up in Virginia, near Washington, returned aboard a government jet that landed at Joint Base Andrews, accompanied by her family and top American officials.

In a statement, lawyers for Ms. Hijazi said that they had “worked closely with the Trump administration to ensure Aya’s case was prioritized at the highest levels, and we are deeply grateful to President Trump for his personal engagement in resolving Aya’s case.

Ms. Hijazi, who has dual Egyptian and American citizenship and is a graduate of George Mason University in Virginia, was arrested in May 2014, along with her husband, Mohamed Hassanein. At the time, she worked at the Beladi Foundation, a nonprofit that she founded to care for street children in Cairo.

Egyptian officials had charged Ms. Hijazi and her husband with human trafficking and abusing children, and they faced years in prison. Human rights advocates had called the case “bizarre” and said that it lacked credibility.

The case had become a symbol of Mr. Sisi’s authoritarian rule in Egypt since he took power in 2013. His government has increasingly sought to control all forms of dissent, and Ms. Hijazi was labeled an agitator by Egyptian authorities.

White House officials said Mr. Trump took a personal interest in her case. He had been briefed about it in the days leading up to Mr. Sisi’s visit, and he instructed his aides to meet with Egyptian officials to lobby for her release.

“He just said, ‘Let’s bring her home,’” said an American official, who insisted on anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomatic matters.

United States officials met with the visiting Egyptian delegation when it arrived in Washington before Mr. Sisi’s visit, and made clear that the president was focused on her fate and wanted her freed.

After long discussions, the Egyptian officials assured the Americans before the White House visit that they would oblige and free her, but not until her court date after Mr. Sisi returned home, the official said.

While White House officials felt confident that she was on the verge of freedom, they chose to take what they knew would be criticism in the news media and from political critics for not publicly mentioning her case during Mr. Sisi’s visit. Aides viewed the case as a vindication of Mr. Trump’s stated preference for addressing human rights issues in private.

After the Egyptian court ordered Ms. Hijazi’s release, Mr. Trump sent a military aircraft to Cairo to bring her and her family back to Washington. Dina Powell, the president’s deputy national security adviser, who is Egyptian-American and was already in the Middle East traveling with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, met up with the family in Cairo and escorted her home late Thursday night.

Ms. Hijazi is scheduled to visit the White House on Friday to see Mr. Trump. The details of her return — and the Trump administration’s efforts to free her — were first reported by The Washington Post.

Former President Barack Obama’s administration had pressed, unsuccessfully, for Ms. Hijazi’s release since her detention three years ago. Her family had complained at times of a lack of action by Obama administration officials.

During Mr. Obama’s tenure, Mr. Sisi had been barred from the White House, reflecting the government’s feelings about his seizure of power in a military takeover.

But Mr. Trump has shifted Washington’s approach toward the Egyptian government. In his Oval Office meeting with Mr. Sisi, he lavished praise on the Egyptian leader.

“We agree on so many things,” Mr. Trump said on April 3. “I just want to let everybody know, in case there was any doubt, that we are very much behind President el-Sisi. He’s done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation. We are very much behind Egypt and the people of Egypt. The United States has, believe me, backing, and we have strong backing.”

The decision to reset relations with Egypt and Mr. Sisi appears to have helped shift the direction of Ms. Hijazi’s case. A court in Cairo dropped all charges against her and other defendants in the case on Sunday.

Kerry Kennedy, the president of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights center, which represented Ms. Hijazi, said in a statement Thursday night that it was a “day of celebration” for her and the others freed.

“Their strength through adversity serves as a model for all who seek to make our world just and peaceful,” Ms. Kennedy said. “Aya and Mohamed stood up for ideals, acted to improve the lot of others and sent forth ripples of hope. We are grateful for their example, and to all those who helped make today possible.


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