WASHINGTON — US President Donald Trump on Friday hosted a US-Egyptian charity worker in the White House who was freed after nearly three years in detention in Egypt on charges human rights groups denounced as “arbitrary.”
A Cairo court acquitted Aya Hijazi last weekend along with her Egyptian husband and six others of accusations they were complicit in alleged sexual abuse of children at the foundation the couple ran.
Her release came days after a meeting between Trump and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi in Washington in which the two men exuded warmth and expressed strong mutual support.
“We are very happy to have Aya back home and it’s a great honor to have her in the Oval Office,” Trump said.
His administration is keen to forge closer ties with Egypt after Washington had kept the country at arm’s length for years. Former US president Barack Obama notably harbored concerns about Sissi’s purge of political opponents and rights activists.
Hijazi’s supporters say she was targeted at a time when the authorities were cracking down on civil society groups and protests, trying to paint protesters as paid agents of foreign entities.
One charge against her was that her Belady Foundation, founded in 2013, had not properly registered as a non-governmental organization.
She and the others accused had been kept in detention pending trial since their arrest in May 2014.
Human Rights Watch last month said the lengthy captivity “appears to amount to arbitrary detention,” calling the trial “nothing less than a travesty of justice.”
Several prosecution witnesses recanted testimonies supporting the sexual abuse claims.
Trump’s spokesman, Sean Spicer, said the US president “directly engaged behind the scenes” to have Hejazi released and returned to the United States.
“The president discussed the issue privately with President el-Sissi when he visited the White House a little while ago,” he said.
Critics accuse Sissi’s regime of seeking to quash the drive to democracy started during the Arab Spring in 2011, when huge demonstrations led to the ouster of Egypt’s longtime strongman and US ally Hosni Mubarak.
After elections produced a short-lived government led by the Muslim Brotherhood politician Mohammed Morsi, Sissi seized power in 2014.
He has brooked no dissent or opposition since then, earning criticism over his treatment of human rights.
But the United States under Trump has stepped up support of Egypt, which receives an annual $1.3 billion in military aid and serves as a linchpin in Middle East politics.
The Egyptian president told Trump’s visiting Pentagon chief James Mattis on Thursday that he wanted to “strengthen the ongoing military cooperation between the two countries.”