CAIRO -- Two American couples who say they were trying to adopt children in Egypt were convicted of human trafficking and sentenced to two years in prison Thursday in a case that highlighted the murky process for adopting in this predominantly Muslim country.
Islamic law observed in Egypt bans Muslims from adopting children, in the name of maintaining clear bloodlines to ensure lines of patrimony and inheritance.
However, adoptions within the minority Christian community in Egypt do take place -- including by Egyptian Christians living abroad. But experts say they face enormous obstacles from authorities, so many resort to forging documents and bribes.
The case was first time such an adoption case has been tried in Egypt, and lawyers of the two couples have said Egypt was prosecuting because of U.S. pressure on the country to crack down on human trafficking. The couples were discovered when the U.S. Embassy in Cairo reported to authorities that it was suspicious of them after they tried to get their adopted children out of Egypt.
The four -- Iris Botros and Louis Andros of Durham, N.C., and Egyptian-born Suzan Hagoulf and husband Medhat Metyas -- were arrested in December and went on trial in May on charges of child trafficking and forgery. Andros, Hagoulf and Metyas -- who are both from Egypt's Christian community -- all hold U.S. citizenship. Court documents said Botros, also an Egyptian Christian, holds U.S. residency.
The four were also ordered to pay a fine equivalent to around $18,000 each.
Botros and Andros adopted twin newborn boys, while Hagoulf and Meytas adopted a male toddler. They adopted them from a Cairo orphanage that allegedly gave them forged documents stating the children had been born to them.
Two U.S. Embassy officials attended the trial but declined to comment on the case.
"The embassy has been following the case and is aware of the verdict," U.S. embassy spokeswoman Margaret White later said. She would not comment further on the case or on the American nationals, citing privacy concerns.
The Americans were brought in handcuffs to the Cairo court Thursday, wearing white T-shirts and pants. Once inside the defendants' cage, the spouses hugged and kissed as they had been kept apart in custody.
Their spirits seemed high and they waved to reporters. Andros, who is in his 70s, wore a big silver cross around his neck, hugged and kiss his wife Botros, 40, who still had cuffs on a single hand.
The younger couple, Hagoulf and Metyas, who have been living in Egypt since 2003, also hugged and kissed. Hagoulf carried a photograph of a baby boy she had adopted from the orphanage.
After a swift sentencing, the defendants were taken away. Police prevented the couples from speaking to the media and it was unclear if they would appeal the verdicts. Their lawyers could not immediately be reached for comment.
Seven Egyptians were also sentenced in the case, including a nun connected to the orphanage, orphanage employees and a doctor who provided fake birth certificates. Four of the seven remain at large and were sentenced in absentia. The Egyptians were sentences to either two or five years imprisonment and their fines were equal to those of the Americans.
As the verdicts were pronounced, a sister of one of the Egyptian defendants cried "Haram" -- Arabic for unfair or wrong.
"They are hiding facts. It is corrupt, the whole court is corrupt," said Afaf Khalil, the sister of orphanage employee Gamil who was sentenced to five years in prison. Their brother Atif accused the government of "religious persecution," saying it was impossible to "fairly try a Christian using an Islamic Law."