The case for Ibrahim Halawa, three years on
Ahead of his trial date on Tuesday, Eoin O Broin met Ibrahim Halawa last week in a Cairo prison
The governor of Wadi el Natrun prison in Cairo couldn’t tell us how many detainees were being kept in the 12-block prison he managed. So many boys and men come and go on a daily basis that it is hard to keep count.
I asked him whether there were hundreds or thousands of inmates? “Oh, thousands,” he said confidently.
Wadi el Natrun doesn’t house ‘regular’ prisoners. It is for those caught up in the failed Egyptian revolutions of 2011 and 2013.
There are some accused or convicted of involvement in acts of violence. There are many detained for nothing more than expressing their opinions, attending peaceful demonstrations, or organising NGO work.
It is estimated that 6,000 minors have ended up in prison related to the political turmoil since 2011. One of these is Irish citizen Ibrahim Halawa.
In 2013, after finishing his Leaving Cert, the 17-year-old went to visit family in Egypt. He was arrested during a demonstration against the ousting of the first democratically elected president of Egypt, Mohammed Morsi. His ‘crime’ was to exercise his democratic rights to freedom of expression and assembly.
He has been detained for three years, four months and 21 days. His trial has been postponed 17 times. Despite being a minor when arrested, he has been kept in an adult prison, in extremely cramped conditions, ten people to a cell. He has complained of physical and psychological maltreatment. He has been on hunger strike since the start of the year.
Respected international human rights organisations including Amnesty and Reprieve have described him as a prisoner of conscience and called for his release.
Last week, eight TDs representing all of the political groupings in the Dáil traveled to Cairo in an attempt to secure the release and safe return home of Ibrahim. The visit followed an all-party motion supporting the demand for Ibrahim’s safe return home passed unanimously by the Dáil last July.
During our three days of meetings, we spoke to academics, human and civil rights defenders, EU officials, the general secretary of the Arab League, senior members of the Egyptian parliament including the influential speaker Ali Abdel Aal, the ministers for agriculture, trade and aviation, and army generals responsible for homeland security and prisons.
We also laid a wreath at the chapel in St Mark’s Coptic Christian Cathedral where 25 people were killed in an Islamic State suicide bombing last December.
The most important engagements of our trip were a visit to Ibrahim in prison and a meeting with Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
Ibrahim has spent three and a half years of his young life in prison. During our 90-minute meeting, attended by the prison governor and more than 15 officials, he was articulate, forthright and honest.
Despite his very obvious strength of character, the physical and psychological strain of his ordeal was clearly taking its toll. He told us of his overwhelming desire to return home, to continue his studies, to start a business and to contribute to society.
He spoke of how much he missed his family and friends in Firhouse. After so many letdowns in his case, he told the visiting TDs that we were his “last hope”.
The following day, we had a 50-minute meeting with president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Remarkably this was the first face-to-face meeting between Irish politicians and the president since Ibrahim’s arrest.
Sisi repeated the position that he has communicated to Enda Kenny, that he couldn’t interfere in the judicial process. However, he gave an assurance that once the trial had concluded, he would ensure Ibrahim’s return to Ireland.
Sisi avoided directly answering questions related to his existing powers under presidential decree 140 to deport defendants pre-trial or whether he would include Ibrahim on a soon-to-be-published youth amnesty list.
While there is no doubt that he has these powers, the real question is whether he is willing to expend the required political capital in advance of the conclusion of a trial, to see Ibrahim returned home.
Unless there is a diplomatic cost in not doing so, it is unlikely that Sisi will move from this position. The Irish government has to date not been willing to impose such a cost.
Despite the divergent political views represented in the delegation, we conveyed a single message in every meeting. The continued imprisonment of Irish citizen Ibrahim Halawa is a barrier to the deepening of future bilateral relationships between Egypt and Ireland.
We also raised concerns about the conditions of his imprisonment, his physical and mental wellbeing and the extraordinary delay in his trial.
With the next trial date set for this Tuesday all eyes will be on the judge to see whether his case will be progressed. If the trial is again delayed, the government must urgently reconsider its approach.
During our stay in Egypt, we were given two deeply contrasting descriptions of the state of the country.
There were those who stressed the need for stability, the rule of law and the necessity of combating terrorism. Many others described a society in which democracy, human rights and civil liberties were constantly under attack.
The former also advocated support for a crippling IMF programme, while others talked about the inevitability of food riots in a country where 30 per cent of people live in absolute poverty.
Caught in this social, economic, political and security turmoil are thousands of young Ibrahim Halawas. But only one is an Irish citizen, and we want him home.
Eoin Ó Broin is a Sinn Féin TD for Dublin Mid-West