Egyptian-American Aid Worker Returns To U.S. After Release From Cairo Jail
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
After weeks of negotiating with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the White House secured the release of an American charity worker after she was jailed for three years by the Egyptian government. In 2014, Aya Hijazi was running a charity to aid street children when she was charged with child abuse and trafficking. That charge was widely dismissed as false by U.S. officials and by human rights groups. Her return home to Falls Church, Va., where she grew up is being celebrated at the White House, but there are other Americans currently detained by the Egyptian government. NPR has been told there are close to 20.
And joining us now is one American who was detained in Egypt and released in 2015, Mohamed Soltan. He's now an advocate working to release other political prisoners in Egypt. Welcome to the program.
MOHAMED SOLTAN: Thank you for having me.
SIEGEL: You helped with the most recent release of Aya Hijazi. What did that take?
SOLTAN: This has been an extraordinary effort, and there had been many efforts on the Hill, starting by her congressman Don Beyer, who went out on a limb for her from the get-go. Congressman Connolly, Senator McCain, Senator Kaine, Senator Warner, Senator Rubio - there have been an extraordinary effort before that on the NGO space with RFK Human Rights and other NGOs - also by the Obama administration who from day one had pushed for her release and mine on extremely high, senior levels.
SIEGEL: So what finally led the Egyptians to release her?
SOLTAN: I don't know what exactly that is. I would assume that this was kind of a goodwill gesture from el-Sissi after he came and got a very warm welcome and embrace by Trump.
SIEGEL: You were jailed by the Egyptian government for nearly two years. What happened, and what did they charge you with?
SOLTAN: I was in there for about 22 months. I had to undergo a 16-months wet hunger strike, nearly dying 10 times. It took an extraordinary effort - again, a worldwide campaign that then pressured the U.S. government to intervene on my behalf until I was released in mid-2015.
SIEGEL: You had been protesting, taking part in a demonstration. Was that the...
SOLTAN: I was actually picked up from my home, but I was shot right before that for live-tweeting protests and dispersals.
SOLTAN: I was shot in the arm, yes. After a bullet missed my head, the second one struck my arm. I was targeted because I was live-tweeting. And when you think about the Egyptian prisons, again, there's about 60,000 political prisoners and, as you mentioned, about 19 Americans that are there now.
SIEGEL: President Trump has praised President el-Sissi's leadership as fantastic. He has restored U.S. military that President Obama had frozen. Do you think that President Trump possesses the leverage to at least get the other Americans released? Or would it be, you know, one goodwill gesture a year for as long as President Trump and President el-Sissi are both in power?
SOLTAN: I mean I'm hesitant to chalk this up to President Trump's personal diplomacy. There has been consistent, high-level pressure on Sissi to release Aya and the other political prisoners. So although he would like to claim this victory, I would use this as a good win. I think we can use this as a good momentum to work off of to get other Americans and other political prisoners out. But if you were to ask me, is embracing a brutal dictator to get results or be - gets results, I would say no every day of the week.
SIEGEL: Mohamed Soltan, thank you for talking with us today.
SOLTAN: Thank you so much.
SIEGEL: Mohamed Soltan is an advocate working to release political prisoners. In Egypt, he himself was held in an Egyptian prison for two years. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.