Aya Hijazi is an American citizen and a humanitarian. She is the founder and Director of the Belady Foundation that worked to help children in Egypt who lived on the streets. In May 2014 when the crackdown on civil society in Egypt was gathering pace, Egyptian police raided the Belady Foundation’s offices and arrested Aya, her husband and her colleagues. They were wrongfully imprisoned in Egypt for almost 3 years.
Human Rights Watch called their wrongful imprisonment a travesty of justice. The US government publicly called for Aya’s release and she was eventually freed in April 2017. On this episode, we have the honour of speaking to Aya herself.
Aya gives us an overview of the political climate in Egypt in 2014 and walks us through her arrest, her interrogation in a police station where she was assaulted and accused of being an American spy, conditions of her detention, the medical issues she suffered from while she was in prison, her sham trial, using her time in prison to learn French, Spanish and drawing as well as how she found the strength to keep on going during those three years. Aya gives recommendations to other former hostages and hostage families on how to persevere through this trauma and tells us what she’s been up to since her release.
We then discuss what the Egyptian and American governments should do better, how the media can really help make a difference in raising awareness of a hostage’s case as well as what the public can do to help.
Aya also reveals that on the day of her release from prison, she was taken to meet the Egyptian Director of National Intelligence who forced Aya to attend a meeting with US President Donald Trump at the White House – a meeting she didn’t want to attend. She was told there would be consequences to her husband if she refused.
Since Aya’s release, she has been advocating for human rights in Egypt and she talks about British-Egyptian human rights activist, Alaa Abd El-Fattah who has been on hunger strike for months as well as the murder of Italian citizen and Cambridge University student, Giulio Regeni who went to Egypt to research labour unions.
If you prefer, you can watch the video version of this interview on YouTube.
For more information on Aya Hijazi, please check out the following:
Get the latest updates on hostage cases we at Pod Hostage Diplomacy are working on including new episodes by subscribing to our fortnightly newsletter, the Hostage Briefing. Subscribe here.
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Aya Hijazi, American citizen and humanitarian previously held in Egypt | Pod Hostage Diplomacy
Daren Nair, Aya Hijazi
Daren Nair 00:05
Welcome to Pod Hostage Diplomacy. We work to free hostages and the unjustly detained around the world. Together with their families, we share their stories and let you know how you can help bring them home.
Elizabeth Whelan 00:18
Now when it comes to using the family to get... for Russia to get what they want, if that's the case, they've picked the wrong family, because I'm not going to carry water for the Russian authorities.
Daren Nair 00:28
These are some of the most courageous and resilient people among us.
Mariam Claren 00:32
I never thought that my mother, Nahid Taghavi, will ever have a link to negotiations in Vienna about the JCPOA. That's so crazy
Daren Nair 00:43
People who have never given up hope.
Paula Reed 00:46
Trevor told his girlfriend to tell me to... to be strong. So, I'm trying to be strong for Trevor.
Joey Reed 00:50
You know, if Trevor can cope with what he's dealing with... We can sure cope with the stress.
Paula Reed 00:53
Daren Nair 00:55
People who will never stop working to reunite their families.
Joey Reed 01:00
We'd like to meet with the President. We believe that, you know, he has... he's surrounded by lots of experienced and educated advisors. But I don't believe that any of them have ever had a child taken hostage by a foreign country, especially not a superpower like Russia.
Daren Nair 01:15
And we will be right there by their side until their loved one comes back home.
Richard Ratcliffe 01:20
Because if enough people care, then the right people will care enough.
Daren Nair 01:24
I'm Daren Nair, and I've been campaigning with many of these families for years. When I first started campaigning with these families, I noticed they struggled to get the media attention they needed. So, I decided to create this podcast, which is a safe space for the families to speak as long as they need to about their loved ones, and what needs to be done to bring them home.
Mariam Claren 01:45
Nobody can prepare you for what our family is going through. Even if someone had told me one year before, in one year, this is going to happen, prepare yourself, it's impossible.
Daren Nair 01:59
Thank you for listening, and welcome to Pod Hostage Diplomacy. Welcome to Pod Hostage Diplomacy. Aya Hijazi is an American citizen and a humanitarian. She is the founder and director of the Belady Foundation that works to help children in Egypt who live on the streets. In May 2014, when the crackdown on civil society in Egypt was gathering pace, Egyptian police raided the Belady Foundation's offices and arrested Aya, her husband and her colleagues. They were wrongfully imprisoned in Egypt for almost three years. Human Rights Watch called their wrongful imprisonment, a travesty of justice. On 16th September 2016, Aya's family met with White House Deputy National Security Adviser, Avril Haines. The following statement was released by National Security Council spokesperson at the time, Ned Price. "Deputy National Security Adviser, Avril Haines, met today at the White House with the family of Aya Hijazi, a US-Egyptian dual citizen, who was detained in Egypt while doing humanitarian work, and has been held in prison for over two years. DNSA Haines reiterated the President's deep concern for the welfare of all American citizens held abroad and assured Hijazi's family that the United States will continue to offer her all possible consular support. The United States calls on the Government of Egypt to drop all charges against Hijazi and release her from prison." Today, we have the honour of speaking to Aya herself. Aya, we're so sorry for what you, your husband and your colleagues went through. We're so happy that you're free and back home in the United States. Thank you for taking the time to speak to us today.
Aya Hijazi 03:41
Thank you, Daren, the honour is mine.
Daren Nair 03:44
Can you please walk us through what happened?
Aya Hijazi 03:46
Yes. So, I'll start around the context of what was happening in Egypt a little bit before 2014. So, really quickly, of course, there was the Arab Spring, 2011, the one or two years of democracy and then under, of course, the very unpopular, quite Muslim Brotherhood rule and then President... So, Defence Minister Abdel Fattah El Sisi led a coup, of course, many wouldn't call it a coup then. And then he became president in 2014. Yes, 2014. And so this was when basically there was still a protest movement. There was a lot of freedom and... but it was starting to be curtailed. There were arrests of Islamists mostly, supporters of the President, the late President Mohamed Morsi. But I belong to, what we call in Egypt, the civil society, like people who are civil society and proponents of a civil state. So, we're in... we don't want a military state, and we don't want a religious state. And so at that time in 2014, there were really no... no people from the people I represent, or I... part of the civil state, like there were no people arrested. But it was very clear that democracy wasn't going anywhere. So, it was at that time that... that I not only decided because I had started my foundation a little bit before that, but this is when I gave all my focus to Belady, to a nonprofit, to something very apolitical. Oddly enough, that wasn't really like we weren't doing any criticism of the regime. We really wanted to do good and keep movements going, but, you know, without criticism. So, this was... this was the context. So, we had... we were doing, like, various projects. The one that was mostly known was the street children. But we've also done, like, various dialogues. We've also done, like, some garbage cleanup in... in slums. So, on... on May 1, like, there was actually, like, no expectation that we'd have any confrontation with the authorities. Actually, like, quite contrary, we've had, like, I've spoken to the police twice, and one time, like, they were seeing me with children, and they were like, "what is this?" So, I invited them upstairs to see the children, and they commended the work and they're like, "great work." So, I had no expectation of what was going to happen. Although... although I must say that, like people always warn that there's... The police use street children as thugs, so like, this is not a project you want to approach. So, on that May 1, I was out with my husband, and then we... we received a call from one of... one of the Belady members that a group of what they called thugs came and attacked the place, claiming that they were looking for a child. So, to explain what would happen, like a lot of these children are runaways. And a lot of times, like parents come looking for them. So, our protocol at Belady was when parents come, we first meet with the parents and like, we... we engage them and then we ask, separately, we ask the children to also meet with the parents and try to work out an agreement with them, whether it's better for them to stay, to return to the parents, or to stay with us. And we've had, like, and then I think, like three or four encounters where... One time, we... we were the ones who took the child to his parents, to his parents home. The others, like, the children would go back and forth between us and their parents. So, this was the first where, like, the... where... where the supposed family, like, came with, not batons, but like sticks, and they actually, like, intimidated people, the volunteers and members of Belady, but also the children, like, they broke one of their... one of their glasses and struck one at the head, so this was surprising. We haven't known, like, we didn't know the child, like, no one even knew, because like people or children living in the street, they know each other, like, no one has heard of that child. So... So, what happened then was my husband went and went to... went with these... with a family and took them to the police station supposedly to file a complaint that they have attacked Belady. He told me not to go... not to go upstairs, like to the nonprofits. But of course, I couldn't leave the children behind. So... So, I went and we were just waiting to see what will happen. So, like two hours later, the police came, and they took all the children and then me to the police station. And... and it wasn't really interrogation, like we were faced with the parents. And it seemed, like, it seemed that first night, like it was the regular questioning of, you know, who's right, whose story is right. But then the second day, like, oh, they were ringing, like we weren't in handcuffs. We weren't even in a cell like, they didn't... We didn't sleep in a cell. We slept just on a sofa, supposedly not being arrested so that, like, we were going back and forth, being questioned until the next day. Like I was just expecting to meet the chief investigator of that police department. And instead it was an officer from national security. And this is when he started, like hurling insults and this is when the episode of beating happened. And he was saying like, "oh you American spy, like America pays you to do this, to take children to protests. Why do you do this, you traitor?" And this is where it was... where it became clear to me that it was something political, like the only... the only sign or indicator before that is when the police came to the nonprofit, they're like, "show us your Canadian passports." I'm like, I mean obviously, I wasn't Canadian, but they were trying to let me say, obviously my American. And so, at that... at that encounter with the national security officer, he's like, "America won't come for you." And then he just stomped on my American passport. I hadn't even, like, said anything about America, or called... called for America's help. But then, so then what happened was, they took my husband separately, and they told him to admit that I was a spy, and that I use, like, weird recording equipment. And if he just testifies, he wouldn't be a witness, and nothing would happen further. And he was tortured and electrocuted for that. But he... but he refused. So, they told him, like, "okay, you know, you think you can defy us. So as, like, as a punishment, neither you or her will ever... will ever see the day of light again." And then they gave us this criminal, like these criminal charges, not related to espionage or anything like I'm saying, criminal as opposed to political. So that's, it was really, like, really frightening charges. We were charged with human trafficking, with making, like preparing porn materials, I think, from the kids, and... and then letting them watch porn and exploiting them sexually, like, just like really hideous charges that even no lawyer would want to intervene. And the US government wouldn't want to intervene. And that's... that's... that was what the US government would say at the beginning, when my family would talk to them. They're like, "no, this... this isn't political. This is... this is clearly a criminal case."
Daren Nair 11:55
I'm so sorry to hear that. I think, I mean, that was obviously their intention to make you look guilty, and use the state media to kind of tarnish your reputations. And you see that with lots of countries that practice hostage diplomacy, or take political prisoners, countries like Iran, Venezuela, and Russia, and China. So, what were the conditions of your detention itself? Were you held in solitary confinement, or were you held in a cell with many other prisoners?
Aya Hijazi 12:26
So, I was really almost treated like any other non-political prisoner. So, besides that episode of, like, assault, it was just I went to the police. Normally, prisoners or people that are in detention, like they go to the police station, and then they'd be transferred. Like, there isn't really one set criteria of like, when or how they're transferred to prison. So, I was held in, like a regular cell D, of course, like, I was supposed to be held in a cell that was underground, and it had no ventilation, it had like, just roaches, like flying around it. Thank God, there wasn't like, they decided to transfer us to another cell, just how, like the... the arrangements was, and so we... The cells are underground, it had some lights. But there's, like, it's very small, like, it fits only, I think we were... It fits like four people or five, but sometimes we'd be like seven people that we couldn't all sleep at once at night. So, we like, exchanged... Like, it's turns... we do turns, like some people stay awake while others sleep. When... when the cell was, had more people, of course, like they wouldn't give you food. So, you had to depend entirely on what your family bring you. And there was like, no exercise in police stations, no beds, obviously, or anything like that. But this was... this is what police stations are like in Egypt. A lot of people die in police stations because of like, you know, no medical care and no exercise, no sunlight. And I was transferred, like twelve days later, I was transferred to prison. In prison, like it is, of course, there's all the problems with prisons like overcrowding, not enough bathrooms. Also there is food, but it's inadequate. So people... so, like you almost entirely depend on what your family bring you in moneywise and, like food and personal itemswise, but it was slightly better. There was like, there was some light at least, which was very important for us, and exercise. After like pretrial, interestingly enough, you know, pretrial detainees, they're supposed to be innocent, supposed to be, like legally innocent, but they receive kind of a worst treatment. So, like I wasn't allowed outside exercise in my pretrial detention cell before, but then like, actually, the police, the police, like the Chief Inspector of the like, basically of the prison, he was nice enough, and he transferred me to another ward, which was the sentenced ward. And it was actually, oddly enough, better than the pretrial detention ward.
Daren Nair 15:23
Did you have any medical conditions at the time? And if so, were you given the medical care you needed? Because I know you just said like, if they're being held at the police station, they don't get any medical... medical care, which is why that's where detainees tend to die. But when you were held in prison, did you have any medical conditions, or either... either pre-existing or as a result of the detention itself? And if so, were you allowed to, you know, go to the infirmary, or meet... see the doctor, or get any kind of medical care?
Aya Hijazi 15:55
Yeah, medical care is really, really terrible. So yeah, I got sick twice. One time I was having like a problem with my wisdom teeth, and I get all these infections, and like, they wouldn't even... like, the hospital doesn't have the right amounts of antibiotics. And so you, if you have money, you could send through the hospital for outside medication, but it takes like, two weeks, up to two weeks to get... to get the medication you want. And like, I just suffered miserably. The second time was... I am asthmatic, and there's so much smoking in the cells. And there's nothing you can do about it. There's no, like non-smoking areas. So, while they would get me on the, what is it called, the ventilator or whatever, but like, it wouldn't... I still couldn't breathe. So like, I... I ended up staying at the cell's door, like spending nights with this cell's door, trying to gasp for air until some... some people, like gave me actually antihistamines. I didn't know what they were, but they're like, "this would work for you." And without a doctor's prescription. And they did. So I had to like, send for my mom and then send for it, like wait for another month to actually get... almost a month to get the medication and I had to do negotiations like, "no, please, I need more than... be like, I need more than just like, one... one pack." So, it was, yeah, it was a lot of suffering. And then... And yeah, I think if I stayed, like this was towards the end, where of course, the stress of awaiting the judgement really, augments the... the stress on the body. And so, I think if I were sentenced, like I may have really, really suffered miserably from my asthma.
Daren Nair 17:48
Again, we're so sorry to hear that. You were an American citizen. You are an American citizen, sorry. Did you receive consular support from the US government? Because I know you said they publicly didn't want to say anything about your case. They said this is a criminal case, not a political one. At least that's what they said initially. But were you able to see anyone from the US Embassy? Did you get the consular support you are entitled to as an American citizen?
Aya Hijazi 18:17
Yeah, so I don't know legally, what consular support scheme gives, but I was like, the... the US Embassy would visit, I don't know, like once a month or something. Like they would just ask if... if I have access to food, if I'm being tortured or not. And that's it. So, one point, I'm like, "all right, this is not useful." And I told them not to come. Like it was... I wasn't... I was really unhappy with... with them. Like, for example, when when my... when the advocacy on my behalf started, and there was interest in the State Department, they kept saying, "oh, but you didn't give us the signature," then they lost the signature, like my consent form that the US advocate on my behalf. And then at one point, they said, "oh, America's now advocating on your behalf... We were really surprised." Like, it's... like, it's not expected to do that. So, where I knew that it was expected to do that. And then, like towards the very end, when there was a lot of... when there was a lot of coverage of my case, like they did... they did two things. First, like they let... I wasn't able to see my husband, except when we go to courts, and sometimes this wouldn't happen six months at a time. So, they brought my husband for visits and then, like they got me permission to... to treat my teeth in an outside hospital. So, there's like, this only happened once I was in the like I was under... under the spotlights.
Daren Nair 19:49
So, you're saying the United States government only decided to do more once there was media coverage of your case? Not before?
Aya Hijazi 19:58
No, not before, like I have, uh, you know, it was... so, I think I saw my husband, he visited in October 2016. We were arrested in May 2014. So, yeah. And then, like, also, this was, like meeting with my husband came with the papers for my teeth, and I've suffered from my teeth before. So like, it was very clear that they will do the least that they can do.
Daren Nair 20:22
Were you given access to a lawyer?
Aya Hijazi 20:26
So yeah, we had our own lawyer, like the... the Embassy does not give lawyers, like all they could do is recommend lawyers. So, we had our own lawyer, own lawyers.
Daren Nair 20:36
And I understand from previous interviews that you've given and articles, when we did the research on your case, is that you were not allowed to speak to your lawyer privately. Is that true?
Aya Hijazi 20:40
Yeah, that's true. And especially... So, this is not really answering that question only. But... but it's another thing like, when it comes to my treatment as an American, like, in some ways, they... I got a better treatment, and in some ways, I got a worse treatment. So, because of my case, and because it was an American case, and a political case, like they really, really monitored my... all of my correspondences very, very closely, whether they were letters, whether they were books, or even visits from... from lawyers, so though lawyers would come, they would send someone actually to listen in.
Daren Nair 21:24
What was your defence like? I mean, was your lawyer allowed to give you an appropriate defence? Or did they do things like what the Iranian judiciary would do, be like, they would give you access to the case file at the very last minute, like a few hours before you go to court or not give you access to the case file... not give you access to the case file at all? Or was your lawyer able to get all the information he or she needed, and see you as often as required? Because I know, obviously, he couldn't speak... he or she couldn't speak to you privately. But did they actively do things to prevent your lawyer from giving you an appropriate defence?
Aya Hijazi 22:07
So... so, when that... No, like they... they actually gave us the right for defence and also, and here, it would be helpful to shed some context on... on what Egypt has been doing. So like, in 2013, as I mentioned, like it started cracking down only on Islamists and then in 2014, I was the first, like from the civil society and civil state, and then it started cracking down on others. And also, like observing the laws that also deteriorated, it started observing the laws and giving, like, lawyers access. And now, like it wouldn't even... Now things have been shifting where the courts wouldn't allow lawyers even, like to photocopy case files. They just have given him an hour or so to read them and photocopying would be at exorbitant prices like 10,000 or 20,000 pounds per case, but in my case, they were able to... to get the documents they needed.
Daren Nair 23:02
What were the court hearings themselves like? Were... were these fair trials, in your opinion, or was it... were these sham trials?
Aya Hijazi 23:09
Yeah, it's 100% sham trials. At the very... like the first two and a half years, they weren't even court hearings. They call them, like, just detention renewals. They wouldn't even listen substantively. So, there is a law in Egypt that says pretrial detention is limited to two years. That law is not observed at all. And, by the way, worst of all, like the... the American Embassy tried to say that the law... that the law isn't two years. Like, if you're interested, I could explain what the law is and what the American Embassy was saying. So, the law says it's two years, but then during Sisi, sometime, I think, during my imprisonment, it was amended that if you are in retrial, meaning that you've already been sentenced, but then you're in retrial, then pretrial detention can be extended to beyond two years. The American Embassy was trying to say that, "no, no, no, it's not retrial... it's not if you are in the retrial, like they have the right to imprison you indefinitely, basically indefinitely in pretrial detention. So anyway, here I am digressing. Yeah. So, anyway. So, the... so, that's one part of like, not observing the law. Like they... the first two and a half years, basically until probably September, October is that when I started actually having a trial, and they were just... they were... the judge, the presiding judge, like he even called, and it's a he, other thing he did which means like, they were a renewal judge, like all he do is renew, like without looking substantively, and like, sometimes when the lawyers would try to talk, they wouldn't let them. When we tried to talk, like they would just dismiss us. And even this, like in... in my... my case, like when we actually had a trial, and they lawyers delivered their defences, like I started giving my defence and then, like the... the judge, midway, is like, "all right, that's enough." So there was that. And also like, yeah, for... for the two and a half years, the judges would go on a judges' holiday for almost six months at a time. It's not official, but... but it's at the time of like, from May to November, this is when I'd be, "when I know like when May comes? I'm not gonna go to court for six... for six months, like they do their administrative renewal without the judges going, they go for Ramadan break into holidays break and then for summer break. And this is like a six month, six months period. Of course, like the actual trial itself, which started in September, October, like it's... on paper, it looked like a real trial where they would let observers in. But of course, we knew that judge... the judgement, of course, was political.
Daren Nair 25:55
So, just to take a step back and give our listeners a better understanding of why this happened to you. Obviously, you've given us some good background at the beginning, before you were arrested, but can you tell us more about your background itself, because we know you grew up in the US, you went to Egypt, you met your husband in Tahrir Square, and you established the Belady Foundation, with what I understand was the money that you and your husband had saved away for your wedding? Can you just tell us a bit? Obviously, that was an amazing thing for you and your husband to do. And thank you for doing that. But could you just give us a bit more background on the earlier years of your life, and when I say that, I know you're still quite young, you're in your thirties. But can you just tell us a bit more about your background?
Aya Hijazi 26:46
Mid-thirties, almost forty, now. So, my background was between mostly, actually not Egypt, but Saudi Arabia and the US. My parents have met in the US. They were both doing their Masters. And then my dad found, like a good job opportunity in Saudi Arabia, and that's where they moved. And that's where they had me. And I grew up most of my, the first twelve years, most of them were spent in Saudi Arabia, then. We would just go to... to the US in the summer, like we had some family there. And then, at twelve, I moved to the US. And then... then, most of middle school, in high school, like what the last year of high school was in Egypt. And then I started law school in Egypt. But then I came back midway and did a Conflict Resolution BA degree here, Northern Virginia, George Mason, that's where I spent many years in the US, Northern Virginia. And then I started doing law school, the JD degree in Egypt, it's undergrad here. It's, of course, a JD. I finished my first year and this was when the Arab Spring happened. And this is when I decided to go to Egypt, hoping that we have really a democracy and human, a state that observes human rights, in a nutshell.
Daren Nair 28:07
Can you tell us about establishing the Belady Foundation itself and the amazing work that you've been doing?
Aya Hijazi 28:16
So, it's... of course, it came in that context of the Arab Spring. And this is why I think, of course, people would ask me, why were you arrested? Why were you the one who was targeted? So, I don't have an answer for that. But... But like, it's, I think, many different pieces. So, one piece of it was obviously that I was, you know, pro the Arab Spring, I was doing protests. But, like I as I explained a little bit in the... when... when I was giving context, that it was... it... it became very clear, like I have never seen Egypt so polarised between, like Islamist, pro-military, pro-old regime, and pro-revolution. And it was very clear that it was going the dictatorship way. And I thought, like, "no, we must have a way beyond polarisation and away from politics where we could, like do organising and community engagement." And like, in Egypt, we still didn't have a huge like, do it yourself, like, you know, start a nonprofit and do a start up. We... we didn't have that because the atmosphere wouldn't... wouldn't allow it. So, I think like, during those few years, like between 2011 and 2014, the nonprofits moved from like, nine... 9,000 nonprofits to 45,000 nonprofits. So, it was a time of like, people wanting to take control of their destiny, of wanting to do something different, and believing that they can. And so, I felt like citizen engagement, to... to a big extent, has been protesting and asking the government for solutions. And they wanted us to do... I'm like, "yes, of course, the government is a failure in so many ways. And of course, the government is the solution in so many ways, but we, like the people also can... can offer a lot of solutions." And so for me, it was like, there was that deeper purpose, of being engaged not only in, like asking, or in protesting, but also in doing and entering, like, doing training to... to let people, you know, do project design and project implementation. And so... so, we chose, like the most... the most problems that people really, really suffer from and... Have you been to Egypt before? No?
Daren Nair 30:46
No, I have not been to Egypt. As you know, I used to be a director on the board of Amnesty International, UK, and I don't think... I would probably be arrested the moment I arrived.
Aya Hijazi 30:57
Well, they, you know, they... they'd probably return you. It'd be like, don't come to Egypt again. So, typically, the first thing that strikes you, when you go to Egypt, a lot of people who don't know Egypt will, like, you know, think the pyramids, the civilisation or whatnot. But the first thing that strikes you in Egypt is poverty. And like, poverty, really, by seeing how downtrodden people are, and like, it just strikes you in the face of how they look and how ragged the clothes are, and sometimes, like even, you know, dirt accumulating. But also, then later, it started with garbage being in the streets, like even in more upperscale neighbourhoods, there have been, like garbage dumps in the streets. And it's, like... like, I could go at length explaining why, of course, all related to corruption. And so we're like, you know, what... what are some problems that society suffers from? And how can we engage? And how can we bridge like, bring people together in Belady? We have people who are pro-military rule, we have people anti like, so it was a way of uniting people. So, we... we found that garbage... And we really did some great work, people like I... I do remember, like, what went down when we told people that we're going to clean up your place, like, they did the trilling, like Egyptians [Trilling Sound], like, really, really happy, that's just someone's going to clean up their garbage dumps. And then there was, of course the street children. They were like, they are, I guess, the most abused and forgotten. And of course, it's not only a problem in Egypt. People really despise them and treat them really badly. And of course, like they start their lives at the streets, and out of poverty, some, but then they'd slowly become criminals, as of course, they'd only steal and then like, they'd be involved in... in fights. And then of course, there's rape, and then they become rapists, and all of that. And so, I thought that they... we could do a lot, we could offer them a lot. And the truth is that we did, and people were really, really excited about that project, like we went... we went on radio, and we went on TV. And at one point, it was a very, like popular youth radio programme. Like we had just hundreds of people wanting to volunteer, and they are really excited about the project, like people would come and spend time with them and watch movies with them. And... and at one point, I brought three of the kids to the AUC, to the American University in Cairo. And they were like, really dressed nicely. And they were really adorable. Like, you wouldn't say that they were street kids. And they really know how to melt your hearts, you know, they're just adorable kids. And then the professor, like, at the end of... at the end of the meeting, she's like, "every one of my students has changed their minds about the... about street children, like, you know, you just view them as this nuisance, as these criminals to be taken care of. But then, once you engage with them, you really understand their problem." And so it was, like, you know, I've done various... I've done a lot of work in different areas. I've been to the White House, I've been in prison, but like, the happiest time in my life was really when I was... when I worked with them, and I just saw them, like, the human touch of how, like I had a rule that they... they're not allowed to call me mom. But then at the end, of course, they ended up calling me mom and I... I didn't stop it. They, like they were very protective of me and of the people who worked with them. And, like, we've had a lot of honest conversations of why society disdains them. They'd even say like, "why would people spit on us?" And of course, like while I didn't condone, like... like why people would spit, like I tried to explain how they are portrayed to society, and we were doing, like a lot of advances with them. One of them... One of the street children would go to school and take his exams while living on the streets. And he was there, because his father didn't... That's another problem, like with a lot of the lower class, like the fathers didn't want them to continue school, and they would take them to work like... what do you call it? Not... not interns, but you know, in training with mechanics and things like that, and they're... they're really abused and beaten. So like, that's one reason why some of them would run away. So, we were starting to take them back to school and giving them lessons. That was beautiful. And... and to this day, like people would write to me. They'd be like, "we wanted... we were so encouraged by what we... you were doing. We wish we could do a project like that. But unfortunately, because of your story, we would never approach that topic."
Daren Nair 35:36
I mean, sounds like amazing work you've been doing. And I'm sure that many of our listeners would agree, and would like to help. So, you're still the director of the Belady Foundation, and the Belady Foundation is still doing amazing work. How can our listeners help the Belady Foundation right now if they want to?
Aya Hijazi 36:08
So, I'm still the director of the Belady Foundation, yet, legally, and in terms of projects, it's a different Belady. It was an Egyptian Belady then; now it is an American Belady. We don't... we no longer do any field work like this, because that is really strictly not allowed and dangerous. We do actually defence of political prisoners. And, you know, while I told you like, it was the most vulnerable group that we found, back then, like in 2012, and 2014, was street children. Now there's children who are arrested for political reasons, and they are tortured nonetheless. And... and they are really, they are abused nonetheless. So, we defend children and women who are in prison for political reasons, and sometimes also freedom of expression. Like there are girls and women who are in prison, like, and have up to ten-year sentences for Tik Tok. I don't know if you've heard about them for like, just, you know, doing what girls do on Tik Tok. So, there's... there's a lot of... I'd really encourage... encourage listeners to... to... to... to take a look at what's happening in Egypt, take a look at the repression that's happening in Egypt and... and whatever way that they can like, not support. You know, the US is a close ally with Egypt, but turns a blind eye into all the abuses that happen. They try to smear all the political prisoners as terrorists. They are not terrorists. They're people like me. Of course, we do have a terrorism problem, like, you know, to be clear about it. There are, of course, terrorists, like there are anywhere. But most of the political prisoners are just regular people who are trying to make Egypt a better place. So they can, you know, there's a lot of influence, room for influence of US policy, or whatever European policy towards Egypt, of raising the profile of political prisoners, of exposing the repression that has been happening. And of course, the military aid that is sent to Egypt. The US does certify every year that there's progress in human rights, and there's absolutely no progress in human rights, but manifest deterioration, so there is no reason to give that waiver that the US continues to give.
Daren Nair 38:26
So, if I wanted to find out more about the Belady Foundation itself and what you currently do, what would be the best way to get in touch, as in what's your website address?
Aya Hijazi 38:37
So, the website is belady-ih.org; we have Facebook pages, and we have this Egypt Prison Atlas page that gives a lot of information about women and child political prisoners, like who they are, what their story is, what their sentences are. It gives the profile of the judges, the terrorism circuit judges and what their judgments are like, including the death sentences. So, it's really, if someone wants, it's like a map of their oppression in Egypt, pertaining to women and children.
Daren Nair 39:11
We recommend our listeners check it out. Again, thank you for all the work you're doing. Now, going back to your own experience in prison. So, during the almost three years you were held in prison, you were able to learn French, Spanish and how to draw. So, you... did you do this to keep yourself busy? And why did you learn these?
Aya Hijazi 39:34
Yes, a little bit are a lot of... I'm, like still not confident about my Spanish and French. So, drawing I was learning it before prison. I just had some more time to draw. And yeah, I had a... I had a schedule in prison to feel like, like I was, you know, a prisoner feels useless, like after you've been contributing to society and to your family, like you are not contributing to anyone. So, this is, I guess, my theory was this is the time where if I can't contribute to the outside world, like I could contribute to my own growth, and also to my sanity, because it's very hard to stay sane, not only in prison, but in prison not knowing what will happen to you. And that is, of course, like the biggest toll... toll, on... on... on any prisoner's mind - insanity. And so, the way to stay sane was for, like self improvement. And also, like I... so, I wanted to learn languages before. Of course, in the US, Spanish is super-useful. In the Middle East and a lot of the world, like French is useful. But also, like I... I had a schedule of what to read and like novels were what I would read on our holiday Friday, so that I could have some escape, like a mental escape.
Daren Nair 40:54
So, you were released in April 2017, after you arrested in May 2014. Can you tell us more about the events leading up to your release?
Aya Hijazi 41:04
All right. So, as you've mentioned, in September, I think when... when... when Ned Price gave that statement. So, there was... Also like, I would like to credit... the US is ultimately a 100% credited for my release. But I would also like to credit the Egyptian nonprofits, and the international human rights organisations of course, like Human Rights and Amnesty and Human Rights First. So, there's been like, really, the, at first, like the first year and a half of my arrest, no news agency in Egypt was allowed... allowed to publish about me. But, then like, after the case is forgotten a little bit, apparently like Egyptian newspapers, especially the dissent ones that were still, like dissent newspapers, they were allowed to... to publish. And so this is when my, like advocacy for... for me and my case started gaining traction. When Egyptian nonprofits were able to publish in, like the dissent newspapers in Egypt, and then convince international human... human rights organisations to publish and say that I'm not a criminal. And then, like The Washington Post picked this up, and then, like the, as I told you, in our private meeting, when my Congressman, Congressman Don Beyer, and our neighbour, Congressman Connolly, when they started, when they did a press conference and called for my release, encouraging Senators to write a statement to the... to the State Department, so this was all like, the... the outside, what was happening on the outside, international... international end. On the... on the more, like private end, the Egyptian government, of course, like they didn't tell me why I was arrested, like really arrested, or what they really wanted from me, but um, they made it clear. They... in... it was, okay, it was in April. So just, like two weeks before the arrest, that the director of the Egyptian intelligence sends my lawyer with an offer of relinquishing my Egyptian citizenship, and then walking free without trial. This was the offer. The reason is, like they... they want to... they want to smear like, activists and just show that they're, you know, all of their loyalties are to whatever other country that they belong to, mostly to the US. And so, then I refused, I said, "I will not give up my citizenship." And so I came, the lawyer came again, not with a counteroffer, but saying, like more of a threat, that if I don't give up my citizenship, like it could be a life sentence. They didn't say what the dealings were with President Trump were at the time. So, I went to court or to trial, rather, knowing that I was very well at risk of having a life sentence, and especially that the Trump White House or Administration hadn't, like I hadn't heard any statements from them. So, it was a lot of people thought that, you know, President Trump would not advocate for a Muslim, also Arab political prisoner or even, like strain ties with Egypt. So, it was... it's... I'm so... at that time, like I... I had a fear that my... that my imprisonment would have to... that I would be delayed until, like the next Democratic president.
Daren Nair 43:45
So, can you talk to us about the day of your release itself? Because I know, I... I've seen some of the interviews you did. I know I... I saw the moment the judge announced things and I saw you, you and your husband and everyone else cheering in the cell. But like, can you just talk to us? What was it like in... in that moment when you were there, and you found out?
Aya Hijazi 45:13
So, yeah, okay, the day of the release is different from the day of the acquittal. Not sure what the procedures are like in the US, but in Egypt, you're not... you're not released when you're acqitted. It's like the paperwork may take days, weeks or months even. So, on that April 16th, yeah, I went to court. I was bracing for a life sentence, like even the lawyers then would be like, "oh, it could be twenty-five, fifteen, like the best we could hope for... hope for is seven." So, I was like, hoping and praying that I... that not to cry or faint. I don't like to appear weak. And so, I was just mentally prepared. I was truly hoping for an acquittal, because I know it matters to people. So, but I wasn't expecting it. And so, when the judge, like what did... so, the way judgments are read, like they usually, like if there's a case with several people, they would start with the highest, the longest sentences, sentence or the most severe sentence. So, he's... he read my husband's name. I'm like, "oh, God, he got the longest sentence." And then he said my name, I'm like, "oh, oh, I'm just like him." And then, he started going through the others and like, no way he'll bring, like the... you see people, like "no way he didn't give them long sentences until he read the list, and like, what's happening then? And he said, "acqittal," and I was incredulous. I couldn't believe it. And so, I was, of course elated and thinking that I like, of course, it's a huge victory, moral and psychological and everything. But I also like, at that time, I was basically the hero of Egypt. And newspapers are like, "oh, she's innocent." I still, like I'm... I'm very distrustful of the authorities. So, I went to prison., and then I, like waited for the news to hear... to hear it like, maybe they change their minds. And then like, I also waited the next day to read it in the newspapers that nothing would change. So, this was the acquittal, which was quite different from the release.
Daren Nair 47:15
So, how long did it take until you were actually released?
Aya Hijazi 47:19
So, the release happened rather quickly. It was, I believe, Sunday, the acquittal, and then Monday, if I remember, correct, Monday was like the... the Egypt, what they call Easter, and Tuesday at like, 11 o'clock, I was... I was called to be released. And this is where I didn't know what to expect. Like, I just honestly thought that it's one of two scenarios, like either my family would be waiting for me outside the prison gates. This is, like in the abnormal, like, circumstances, because prisoners generally or normally tend to go from... from prison to the police station, that they were first held at and then be processed from the police station. No, sorry, from, no, first like, at a central police station, and then that's to their own police stations, I believe. So, I was... So, I thought that I might be taken to that police station or I'd find my family outside. But I didn't find either. There was the, like armed forces SUV waiting. And of course, I knew I had to go with them. I had no idea what... who they were or what was gonna happen. And this is when like, I asked them, they wouldn't answer but like, so, the military prison is, like two hours outside of Cairo. So, like the two-hour trip, at the end of this two-hour trip, I was speaking to the Director of National Intelligence himself. And this is where, like, I had no idea what he wanted to say. And this is where he said that I had to meet Trump, President Trump. Or, so at the time, the design was that me and my husband would go and meet with the President. My husband wasn't released yet. I was the only one released from like, seven people held with us. And so, he basically wanted to guarantee that I and my husband would agree else, as he threatened, like my husband could stay in prison a little bit longer. And of course, we all know what a little bit longer was, like a life sentence longer. And...
Daren Nair 49:29
So... so, just to understand, you're meeting the Director of Intelligence of Egypt, right?
Aya Hijazi 49:34
Daren Nair 49:35
So, the Director of Intelligence of Egypt is forcing you to have a meeting with President Trump of the United States.
Aya Hijazi 49:43
Daren Nair 49:44
Why? Why does he care about what you do in the US?
Aya Hijazi 49:50
Why does he care? Of course, he wouldn't say. Whatever lame reason he gave... he gave was, "you owe him a thank you. Obviously, that's not... that's not what he wanted. Um, so to me, I think what the US government got and what the, of course, like I didn't want that meeting with President Trump. Let's not make it overtly political, but I... I didn't want that meeting with President Trump. But of course, like, so I think President Trump was a big winner in that meeting, of course. So, it was, you know, he... he came to office, January 25th. This was April 16th. So, he was able to boast amply about it that he got... he released a political prisoner whom Obama has failed to release. And so, like, he really bragged about it for, what, for... for a few months, so he got that foot up. Whereas,...whereas like the... the win for President Sisi of my release, was that he was able... All of this, like, it's conjecture, obviously. But like, Obama would never meet with President Sisi. Hillary Clinton, like said that, when we thought that she might... when she said she wouldn't meet with Sisi, unless he releases me. And so Trump, President Trump, met with Sisi, like just three weeks before my release and, like everyone made it clear to me that... that was the condition, like if you guarantee that she'll be released, we will meet you. What are the government's gains from... what the Egyptian government gained from my meeting with President Trump is what they did following that, oh, the state media confirmed that I was an American spy. And, and so, yeah, that's their win.
Daren Nair 51:34
So, it seems to me that the US government negotiated your release, not because it was the right thing to do. Because it was a... there was a political gain for both leaders of the... for the Egyptian president and the US president. It wasn't because it was the right thing to do.
Aya Hijazi 51:51
So this, this is a little bit complicated. So, obviously, the first two years, they didn't do it, because it was the right thing to do. My... also analysis and conjecture, is like, you know, we... Egypt is an ally. Why strain the relationship with it? It's not worth it, even if, like there's this one citizen, it's really not worth it. But then, like when pressure was mounting through the local and international nonprofits and the media, and when, like US officials would be asked by media, like, "why is she in prison?" They were... they were being responsive. And this was then like, still the Obama Administration, like they were being responsive to the people. And so, why they started intervening was, I think, because they were being accountable to the people or the media asking people to intervene. And so, this was kind of the right thing to do. I don't know how Obama would have handled it, like, it's like, you know, advocacy. Like, I also like to be fair in crediting the administrations, fair do. So, like the advocacy heightens, at the end of the Obama term. I don't know how Obama would have handled it, if he would have forced a meeting like that. I don't think he would have. So, I think, like the administration, at that time, and they said, like even Hillary Clinton was talking about it, like they were going to do it, because this was a case where like, they were being questioned about it. And so, with Trump, like he was... he... since he was also being questioned about it, it's like, "how do I get an additional win," I suppose.
Daren Nair 53:26
I mean, that's just sad to hear. But it's not surprising, sad but not surprising. So, Aya, you're clearly a strong and resilient person. How did you cope with the trauma during your imprisonment itself, as in how did you find the strength?
Aya Hijazi 53:42
So, I'd like to say that, like my year out of prison was more... it was way harder than my three years in prison. I was prepared kind of for... for... for imprisonment, while I was protesting. I wasn't prepared for... for being in prison for the nonprofit work I was doing. And so, first of all, like I... I felt that I was doing something, you know, contributing to society. And I also had a list of things that I would be grateful for if... if I had them in prison, like sunlight, as I made clear, exercise, access to books, access to letters and family visits, so like it was more, I expected prison to be much worse. So, like... like, I also expected... I was okay before I went to prison and spending five years in prison with... with not feeling bitter about it. But of course, there were, like other things that made it bitter, like not knowing how long I'll spend, of being charged with these really heinous crimes, of being forgotten totally. So this, so like, so that it was a mix of, like having really, really low moments where I'd give up and think that I'll never be released again, and also, you know, suicidal. But then there were other moments, especially... especially I have to say, when there was, like support from people, like when they'd... they'd send me letters or I know there's advocacy, but even then, like, I... I guess I came to terms... I guess I came to terms with it, where I asked myself, like, "what have I done wrong?" Like, really, you haven't done nothing wrong. Like, I tried to do something, even, like, I do believe political engagement is a right, but it wasn't even them, like it was doing something safe and something that would benefit society and... and so, there's no regrets, you know, like, I just have to come to terms with it. And this is when I've had some peace. Of course, like, I've done a lot of meditation. And then I got access to radio after six months, like, you know, all these additional things like reading novels, meditation, radio, music, like they... they're techniques and tools that... that would really take the strain of thinking about what's happening. And... and like, a lot of... so most of my days, like, the worst day for me was when I'd... when I'd hear that I'll get six months, six months, you know, is a criminal sentence, without going to court, without the hope of the release. And like, this is when... these were usually my low moments, but my highest moments, of course, were the opposite, when I was going to court and thinking that it's my... I might be released, but usually like my days, you know, the starting with exercise, and then of course, my study schedule. And then, like listening to the BBC at 3pm. Like I would, my days were mostly pleasant, and I was interacting with my colleagues and learning about crime and social structures. And so, there was like, I tried to read a lot, and I did a lot of learning, like, both about life and society. And...
Daren Nair 56:55
So, there's a saying that goes, "tough times don't last, tough people do." Do you have recommendations for other hostages and their loved ones on how to cope and persevere through trauma?
Aya Hijazi 57:08
Yeah, well, the first is psychological care. Like, I couldn't emphasise more the role of psychological care, which. like is so neglected within... within, I guess, in this context, the hostage community, but also with the prisoners' community, the family and even like, organisations who support them. It is invaluable. Like, even, of course, like the family and the hostage, or the prisoner themselves, they want to be released and things like, you know, if you're released, everything would be solved. And... and that's true, in a sense, but it's also not true, in a sense. I was talking to... At Belady, we do provide psychological care, and I was talking to the psychologist, debriefing her sessions with current and former prisoners, and she's like, what... "some of the prisoners, they don't feel that they have left prison, after that they have left prison." You know, prison stays with the person, I suppose, forever. And so... so, while the ultimate goal, I guess, in hostage diplomacy, or with political prisoners, is to get the prisoner released, the psychological trauma will not stop. And so, this is more just kind of encouragement to... for... for a person, you know, if somehow they could get... get access to care, or reading, like reading about psychotherapy, for the family, to get that psych... you know, psychological care for themselves as they are suffering, but also to deal with the person after they're... they're released, like, you know, the trauma will not go. And then besides that, like, you know, getting used to life again, it's very difficult, engaging with people and with your loved ones, is difficult in some senses, family members out of goodwill, they make it even more difficult. So, that's the first of course. Religion... religion and spirituality, like that also played a role that I neglected to mention. I was very spiritual in prison. And then therefore, of course, like there's the engagement and always like, which is really tied to hope. Sometimes, there's this unfortunate result where people don't get out, but it's crucial for everyone's wellbeing, to retain hope and part of retaining hope is, you know, continuing to engage even if it seems far fetched, even if release seems far fetched. Nothing is impossible. I think it was quite impossible for me, like to actually think that I would end up at the White House, but it... but it happened. Like, I wasn't the superstar. I wasn't, like this, you know, this world-renowned basketball player or whatnot. And so... And... and.. and, like my friends who... who helped in advocacy, like, when they talk to Congressmen, like she's my friend would say, Chelsea, she's also, like one of the people credited for my release. Like, she was calling and they'd hang up and, like she'd say, "they close one door and open an... another." So like, just to maintain that engagement and maintain hope and... and hopefully, you know, the things would follow.
Daren Nair 1:00:24
Thank you for that. And I'm sure the families with loved ones currently held hostage abroad, and former hostages, will find that helpful. Now, we know you're a mother. So, congratulations. How is life? I mean, what are you up to now?
Aya Hijazi 1:00:43
With motherhood or...?
Daren Nair 1:00:45
In general, because I know it's been, what...?
Aya Hijazi 1:00:49
Daren Nair 1:00:49
Five years since... since your release. Obviously, you said the first year after your release, it... it was difficult. You were recovering from the trauma. It's been five years now. Like, I interviewed Michael Scott Moore, this German-American journalist. He was held hostage by Somali pirates for 977 days. I interviewed him in March. It's been seven years since he was released. And he, I mean, he's comes across a pretty chilled out guy. He lives in Los Angeles. He's a surfer. If you follow him on social media, you'd never realise that this is a guy who was held hostage for almost 1,000 days at gunpoint by Somali pirates. But seven years later, he's still... he's still... No one, I guess nobody fully recovers. He still gets panic attacks every now and then. Like, it's five years since you've been released. You're a mother. I... would you... I mean, what would you say you're like now? You're fully recovered, or do you still... are there still some kind of leftovers from that trauma, I mean?
Aya Hijazi 1:01:57
Yeah, I think for my case, it's a little bit different. Because while I was also, you know, I was a hostage, I don't... I was also classified as a political prisoner. And so, um, so first of all, like I've left so many political prisoners behind, and every day, you know, working on the fight of women and children arrested for political reasons, it's not easy, and it's... and it's... it's trauma on its own, you know, you're unable to secure the release of so many, and it's just, like following the news, not only easier, but the Arab Spring and... and beyond... beyond that it's like the wave of the right wing dictatorial governments, like it's its own trauma of like, you know, part of the one year that I... the one year trauma wasn't that I was spent two years in prison, it was more of like, what am I doing in my life? What's the purpose now? And so I'm, you know, still trying like, "okay, now the Arab Spring is gone, and I'm working on this finally, like what is, you know, what is going to keep me going and what is... what should we look forward to?" What is the, you know, when you have all those big dreams, and now you just have to reduce them. So, I think that's where I am, but my daughter, like she's... she's really the best thing that has happened. And she's a really jolly little child, and she... she keeps me going, and I guess one... one more thing to fight for. Sometimes, I do feel like, "why have I brought the human being to this world, but um, she's happy and I like, you know, there's more reasons to fight to make this... this world a better place.
Daren Nair 1:03:30
I'm glad that you're hopeful and that you've come up from... you've come out from this not as the victim but as a victor in in some way, which is... which is, I mean, it gives other families hope that, you know, things will get better. So, thank you for that. Now we're reaching the kind of how to make things better part of our podcast conversation. So, what should the Egyptian Government be doing better?
Aya Hijazi 1:04:07
Oh, to start with to... Whoa, so much. But to start with, like to... to release the political prisoners, number one, number two, to stop torture, number three, to stop enforced disappearances. That's one horrible thing that happens. Now, most of political prisoners in their journeys, they're secured for various periods of time, like lasting from 48 hours to undefined number of years. And so like, even... even if supposedly, political imprisonment is somehow legal, enforced disappearance isn't, and torture isn't. And then, like, and then all this monitoring and controlling of, like they... they've closed websites. The media isn't open. They have shut down, like all, you know, independent newspapers and... and TV channels, so, like to open up the media space. And this is... and I also like to link always freedom to... to economy and to the well being. So, it's not just freedom of expression. It's like when they have restricted all, not only opposition, but all independent thought, for example, like, you know, the... the Ethiopian Grand Renaissance Dam. So, this is like the livelihood, the water that people drink, right? And so, like they have even estranged scientists who could propose solutions that would help save people's lives, like this is, the reason isn't to bring down a dictatorship or anything like that. It's just, like to say what the scientific practices should be. And so this has, you know, this freedom, like opening the space has a direct impact on people's lives, of their drinking water. And so, like, even just starting with those, of not restricting expression and the file of the prisoners. That would be... that would change Egypt's trajectory.
Daren Nair 1:06:04
So, I've... I've looked at your social media channels. You're quite active. I know you've mentioned British-Egyptian human rights activist, Alaa. I'm not sure what his full name is. But he's been on a hunger strike for quite a while. Do you want to just talk about him and what needs to be done for his release? Because obviously, you advocate for political prisoners in Egypt, right?
Aya Hijazi 1:06:28
Sure. So, Alaa Al-Fattah, he's, like one of the most prominent voices that called for the Arab Spring, he and his family, his father was a human rights lawyer, Seif Al-Fattah. His mother is a mathematician; she teaches at the University. She's also a proponent of free speech. So, the father was imprisoned at various times. His sister, his sister, Sanaa, was imprisoned also for various times, and the family was beaten, just trying to... just trying to gain access to him and give him letters. So, he's going on a hunger strike. He's been... there's this terrible practice that Egypt has been doing, activists call it prison rotation. So, while the person is in prison, or like maybe a few days before his or her release, or after their release, they're all detained and charged with other crimes, that they could not have even committed. So, Alaa Al-Fattah had served his sentence, and he was released. He did nothing wrong. And then he was rotated to another case where... where he had lost prospects of hope. So, he was if, of course, he was innocent, but if... but even according to the law, he served the sentence that he was charged with, and now he was basically, you know, like, if there is rule of law, it's would be called illegally. And so he's only being punished because he was one of the, like, loudest voices in the Arab Spring. And that's why. He is, you know, a British citizen. I got released, because I was an American citizen, and the UK should do the same. It's his, you know, if he would have, well here, you know, racism and discrimination comes up, like if he was just a white British-born citizen who's not, you know, a dual citizen, surely, they would have had... talked more about him. So, I do urge the UK to do what's right for itself, like even, you know, like knowing dual citizens like us, who are not white, even, you know, when... when... when countries know that they can target us, like in the future, they know, and there's no cost, like the... if the US or UK or what, whatever government accepted that, you know, we'd be targeted, then they know that then, you know, it's not that they know that there's a cert that they can get away with it. So if it's, you know, it's like if the Muslim, or the brown or the dual citizen is first, you know, that then after that, they will be okay with even like, non dual citizens. And so... so a price must be paid and... and the governments must call for their release.
Daren Nair 1:09:14
Thank you for that. I'm sure. Alaa's family will appreciate you standing... calling for his release. Going back to your imprisonment, your wrongful imprisonment in Egypt, what should the US government be doing better to prevent this from happening to other American citizens? Because I know, the US government has established the role of the US Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, also known as SPEHA. This role is currently performed by Ambassador Roger Carstens. Did your family work with SPEHA while you were in prison?
Aya Hijazi 1:09:46
No, they... they weren't. And I... I think the office, Daren, wasn't yet established. I just... I don't know if there's an escalation in the numbers of, like hostages that are taken, but I do feel, like especially... especially when it comes to Egyptian dual citizens, that the government kind of has taken a lesson and started advocating for them earlier on. But, um, so, but to the question of what they should be doing is, like not... obviously they shouldn't be leaving prisoners to rot there. There was the case of Mustafa Kassem. I don't know if you've heard about him. He was an American-Egyptian. And he... it was at... So, at... at the Trump White House, Vice President Pence starting... started to get engaged, but Al-Kassem was on a hunger strike, and unfortunately, he died. And so, um, so I like, you know, engagement is commendable. Like the prisoner's life is quite precarious. And so they should, like intervene way earlier on, like at the very first news of the arrest.
Daren Nair 1:10:57
All right, thank you for that. And yes, there actually has been an escalation. So, there are at least 50 to 60 Americans wrongfully detained or held hostage around the world. In terms of hostage-takers, there are two types: there are state actors. This will be countries like Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Russia, China, Rwanda, and there are non-state actors, like terrorist groups, Somali pirates, for instance. So, recently, the number in the last few years, the number of Americans held hostage abroad by state actors, by other countries, has increased and become a lot higher than the number of Americans held hostage by non-state actors like terrorist groups, or Somali pirates. And, as you know, it's a lot more complicated to secure the release of a hostage when they're being held by a country as opposed to a terrorist group, because the standard method, or the usual method, which is also an effective deterrent, in many ways, is a military operation when the hostage is being held by a terrorist group or Somali pirates. Although I have to say, during military operations, that's when there's the highest risk of that hostage being killed in the crossfire. But at the same point, it still serves as an effective deterrent, because when the hostage-takers know that SEAL Team Six or Delta Force will kick the door down and shoot them in the head, that's a good motivation not to take hostages, especially Americans. And only perhaps four or five countries with elite military operators that have the capability to rescue hostages in this way. But when it comes to countries like Egypt, or Iran, or Venezuela, or Russia or China, that... a military operation is not really an option. Now, some countries might be brave enough or quote unquote, reckless enough to try one and risk all-out-war. But yes, there has been an escalation in countries taking Americans like yourself hostage. So yeah, I hope the US government does something better. The James W. Foley Foundation has done great work documenting the cases of Americans held hostage and wrongfully detained abroad. So, if you're listening and want to find out more, please do check out the great work that the James W Foley Legacy Foundation do. As we discussed at the beginning, the US government got a lot more involved once the media started to talk about your case a lot more. What can journalists and news editors do to help?
Aya Hijazi 1:13:39
I think journalists and news editors, like they also have a role in lifting up the voices. I'm sure... I'm sure, like in... in... in spaces where one of the hostages, either himself or herself, or through family have access to, like to news, news outlets they would love to... to promote... to promote their case, and a lot of times news outlets themselves they are complicit and, like in this is not, you know, not a case that's gonna gain traction. You know, also news media outlets do want to sell and so sometimes there is the duty of doing recording because it's rates, and not only because it's gonna sell and so, like they, I think, they should go out of their way to, like either be responsive to the hostages or prisoners or their families or even reach out to them.
Daren Nair 1:14:32
No, I absolutely agree. And you can see this with the case of WNBA superstar, Brittney Griner. The media can make more people aware of all these 50 to 60 Americans wrongfully detained or held hostage abroad. But at the moment, the media seems to be focusing on ratings, not all of them. There are journalists that do great work at CNN, at even Fox News, and other news outlets as well, in raising the cases of individuals held not just in Russia, not just Brittney Griner, but other countries as well. But the problem is the media reports on cases they think the public want to hear about, without realising they have the capability to make the public interested and want to find out more if they just raise awareness of these cases that aren't getting the media attention.
Aya Hijazi 1:15:26
Yes, I understand.
Daren Nair 1:15:26
So, I've spoken to the other families, right? They know Brittney Griner is getting a lot more attention. And as a result, people are paying more attention to hostage diplomacy, wrongful detentions and what Americans are doing to bring them home and the limits of American power abroad, as well as the other cases. But it shouldn't take a celebrity being detained abroad for the media, and therefore the government, to care a lot more about other Americans wrongfully detained abroad. These other Americans are, some of them, are human rights activists. Some of them are military veterans, actually, quite a few of them are military veterans who have served the country, served the United States well, and they're being held abroad, but they're not getting as much media coverage as Brittney Griner. At the same time, I just want to be clear. Brittney Griner should be brought home. She is a victim of hostage diplomacy. It's just the media, I understand, is also... is not just about journalism, they are a business, they need to make money. The more people read, or the more people click on an article, the more money they get. I understand that part. But I think that's why I created this podcast, to raise awareness of all these cases, even the ones that aren't covered by the media as much. And I also wanted to interview cases from all around the world, to show that this is just not a problem for the UK or the US, or Germany, or Australia or France. This is a global problem that requires a global solution, it requires countries to come together. So again, I completely agree with your point that the media should not just take the cases that rate well, but all the cases that need help. What can the public do to help? So, you got the American public and you got the Egyptian public. The American public has a lot more freedom here, because when they speak out, there are less consequences than the Egyptian public speaking out. So, what can the public do to help?
Aya Hijazi 1:17:34
So like, you know, in mentioning freedom, like even... even signing change.org could be a threat to, you know, not only Egypt but whatever oppressive country like Iran, or probably Russia, but the American public, like has, that's like, even... even, like in creation, in creation of media, like media interest in my case happened was when...when... when Egyptian public figures actually also spoke... spoke about me. And how Egyptian public figures spoke about me was when like, regular people spoke, so like, you know, most of us, you know, most of us meaning, like the public, have social media accounts that... that we use, and like, and now, like any person can generate a tweet that people would go viral or grasp attention. And so like, engaging, like, paying attention to those issues, and engaging with them on social media, talking to their representatives, asking them, you know, showing that they care, like, you know, the, how regular advocacy happens in all other cases. And also like, maybe even, like, I do not support one way or another of like, boycotting a country or, like not going tourism but you know, you can raise the profile of... of a country that's, like holding hostages or whatnot, by writing about it, like, I am going to go to this country, but you know, I don't appreciate, like if you are going to go and visit, but I don't appreciate it holding that person, or I'm not going to go because it holds that person. And a lot of those countries, like even repressive countries, they do care about their image. And so like, and they do care, especially about their image for, like Western or, you know, Western, like European or US citizens. So, like a citizen has leverage, like even if they write an article or if they write on social media that they, you know, a criticism of a country like odds are, like, yes, of course, like it's not one person. But when it's more people, like when more people are engaged, like the countries will listen you know, this is where the dollars are. So, like these countries are hard but in need of dollars, usually.
Daren Nair 1:19:44
No, you're absolutely right. You see a lot of this with Saudi Arabia, especially, getting celebrities to come over and do stuff. Okay, so next one is like you said, about going to countries, right? Should foreigners working in Egypt for international corporations be concerned about being wrongfully detained in the country? And if so, what should these workers and the corporations they work for be doing?
Aya Hijazi 1:20:11
So honestly, like, if they are just like, you know, gas, petroleum, or like technology companies, I don't think that there should be concern. Whenever friends or acquaintances asked me if they should go, I'd say like, just keep away from asking questions, like any... Egypt has a problem of thinking that everyone asking questions wants to bring it down, or like it's doing it for the sake of espionage. There were instances of, like bloggers and, like vloggers, who talk about food, like who just, like film in the streets have been arrested before. So like any, you know, while they could go to Egypt, and while they can be safe, like any engagements, not only political, but like social could make them under threats. And of course, here, you know, we've highlighted the case of Giulio Regeni who was a student, who was a researcher. And he... he was not only killed, but he was also like, tortured before he was killed.
Daren Nair 1:21:08
No, absolutely. I tell people this when they ask me about hostage diplomacy, it's: "hostage diplomacy doesn't happen to everyone, but it can happen to anyone." So, I know, I've spoken to many former hostages who were held in Iran, for example. And they thought, if they just went to the country, minded their own business, kept their head down and just did their thing, didn't do anything political, they'd be fine. No, they were... they were still arrested. It's... they were at the wrong place at the wrong time, or for the IRGC, the right place at the right time. And they were just detained because they had that American passport or the British passport. And many of these people have travelled to the country before. Brittney Griner has travelled to Russia many times before without being arrested. The people held in Iran, Venezuela, Russia, they've been there before as well. So, it's hostage diplomacy is, "doesn't happen to everyone., but it can happen to anyone." And that's why... And the fact that it doesn't happen to everyone is why not enough people seem to care about it at the moment. And that's a problem, because it affects their safety as well. Now, Aya, we're almost at the end of our interview. Is there anything else you'd like to mention?
Aya Hijazi 1:22:32
No, I was just gonna comment on that of, like hostage diplomacy and happening to anyone or everyone. I think it also requires a bit of knowledge on how this, and this is... I don't know how to get that knowledge per se, like how adverse is real people and the states are to the US. So, for example, Egypt is a US ally, but it has... but there's a very mixed feeling from the state itself and from the people towards Americans. But I've heard, like before, from lots of Americans who do go and visit other countries, like they'd rather say they're Canadians, because they know, a lot of people, like not just in the Middle East, or authoritarian countries, like even in Europe, have a lot of resentment towards Americans. And so it's might be more dangerous in... in countries that are like, state level and... and in a societal level that have more, like adverse and hostile feelings to America, but like, rather than, you know, mixed country like, you know, Egypt or the Middle East, how you would know that, I don't know. But you're right, it could happen to anyone. As like, you know, as Regeni probably didn't think he was suspect. I didn't think that I would be targeted. I was just, like a regular citizen.
Daren Nair 1:23:45
You mentioned Giulio Regeni. So, he is, well, he was sadly, a Cambridge University student in the UK. He's an Italian. He was an Italian citizen. He went to Egypt to do research about labour unions. And he was found, tortured. His death... his body was found tortured, and he'd clearly been murdered. And it's believed that the Egyptian security forces were responsible for this. And to this day, correct me if I'm wrong, no one has been held accountable. And I know, Amnesty has called for accountability, because I remember attending a number of demonstrations in front of the Egyptian Embassy in London, with his colleagues at Cambridge University, and with activists calling for accountability. Can you just talk more about Giulio Regeni's case, please?
Aya Hijazi 1:24:41
Yes. So, yeah, I learned about Giulio Regeni when I... when I was in prison myself, and it was at the eve of January 25. I can't remember which year now. But it's... it used to be at least like in the... in the first years of Sisi's rules that he would pay very close attention on the January 25, because it's the memory of the revolution. And this was, I think, like January 25, or January 26, that his body was found. And this... this is very unusual, because he's also, like a white, you know, European citizen. And... and white European or Americans have largely been immune. We've had, like, we've had trials before of like, also like the American white, European Americans who have been in nonprofits, and they've been like, deported, without even arrest and without, you know, standing in trial. So, this was... this was shocking to everyone that he was treated as an Egyptian. The Egyptians tried to cover it up, and in its attempts, they have murdered five, I believe, in a sense, Egyptians, when they... they, like the Egyptian media invented that there was a crime, that there was a gang that would target foreigners, and they made, like fake IDs, and they just killed all five people. But then when people didn't buy it, like even, like even the layman in the streets wouldn't buy it, it's like they started doing investigations. And I didn't follow closely afterwards, but I know Italy and Egypt, like have points back and forth with asking for evidence and for... and in submitting evidence. And Egypt, I think, was willing to implicate junior officers', like involvements. But I don't believe that there were any arrests in the case. And I know that, like, people who were paying attention to the case, like, what we know is that it wasn't junior officers who were involved, it was like right up to the highest level.
Daren Nair 1:26:45
We're so sorry for Giulio Regeni and his family, and our thoughts are with them. And we hope that they get the accountability they deserve, and that this doesn't happen again. I mean, there's not really much I can say, or I don't really know what to say. Aya, I said this at the beginning of this episode, and I'll say it again, I'm so happy that you're free and back home in the United States. You seem to be happy and doing quite well, which gives hope to other hostages and their families that things will get better. Thanks for taking the time to speak to us today.
Aya Hijazi 1:27:22
Thank you, Daren, and, like big words of encouragement for any families or hostages who may be listening.
Daren Nair 1:27:34
Thank you for listening to Pod Hostage Diplomacy. Thank you for giving your time and for showing these families that they're not alone, that there are good, caring people out there, willing to stand by their side and help in any way possible.
Richard Ratcliffe 1:27:49
Because if enough people care, then the right people will care enough. This is a basic rule of thumb that is true for all campaigning.
Daren Nair 1:27:57
If you haven't already, please subscribe to our fortnightly newsletter called The Hostage Briefing. It's the best way to keep up to date with the cases we're working on as well as new episodes. You can subscribe to this newsletter using the link in the description of this podcast episode that you're currently listening to. Thanks again and take care.