Since August 2013, Ibrahim Halawa has been a victim of a brutal régime. However, as Brian O’Connor argues, there are many obstacles to be overcome before he faces any real prospect of release.
Irish citizen, Ibrahim Halawa, was only 17 years of age when he and his sisters were arrested in Egypt by the Sisi régime in August 2013. Their “crime” was quite simply expressing their discontent at the régime’s dissolution of what was considered one of the Middle East’s newest democracies.
The Mosque they were located in, prior to their arrest, was the scene of a firefight between protesters and Egyptian security forces. Amnesty International claims that 97 people died as a result of the reckless conduct of the Egyptian security forces in the vicinity of the Mosque. While it is fortunate that the Halawas were not caught up in the firefight, the aftermath of the incident can only be described as tragic.
It is one thing to arrest the Halawas for a crime which Amnesty have proven they did not commit, but it is a crime in itself to detain the Halawas under borderline medieval conditions, such as at Al Salam and Tora prisons. In these prisons the overcrowding is so chronic that one would find it difficult to lie down. While Ibrahim’s sisters were released three months after they were detained, Ibrahim still remains in custody. After two years of imprisonment, the now 19 year old from Tallaght, has had his trial delayed for the tenth time. This means that Ibrahim’s case will not be officially heard until October – at the earliest.
Leaving this aside, while it is understandable to be outraged at the conduct of the Egyptian authorities, it is hard not to also feel disappointed at the outcome of the ongoing political relationship between Ireland and Egypt at this time. There are a series of issues that can be seen clearly. The Irish government’s diplomatic relations with Egypt are very different to that of the European Union. Though MEP Lynn Boylan (Sinn Fein) had the ability to express her support to the Halawas and Ibrahim by visiting Egypt, it was done as a member of an EU delegation. This representation by the EU could not be replicated by the Irish authorities – such as the Foreign Affairs Committee – on the same scale. Further tension is also added because the Egyptian authorities see anyone with Egyptian parentage as their citizen, while Ireland sees Ibrahim as an Irish citizen.
The uncertain relationship between Ireland and Egypt has been described as comprising of “confusion and chaos,” by Senator Mark Daly. His efforts to represent the committee by attending Ibrahim’s trial in Cairo resulted in failure due to poor communication between the Egyptian and Irish authorities. As a result, only the chairman of the committee, Pat Breen TD, and one of his advisors have been granted permission to travel to Egypt on an official scale.
It is difficult to speculate what is going on behind closed doors between the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Oireachteas Foreign Affairs Committee, the Halawa family’s campaigns, and the Egyptian Authorities. I would truly like to say that there is a positive relationship between all parties as they lobby to release Ibrahim Halawa, and to give him a fair and transparent trial. Yet, quite frankly, while this is a very sensitive case, in one of the most volatile regions in the world, it is hard not to feel disillusioned with how it is being handled.
In recent months, other high profile prisoners, such as Peter Greste, have been released due to heavy diplomacy by the likes of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade through Presidential Decree. While Ibrahim is not as high profile as Peter Greste, a way of getting a citizen out of a diabolical situation has been shown to the world and it would perhaps be worthwhile to pursue this route. However, there is one major obstacle lying in Ibrahim’s path: he’s still technically on trial. Because of this, he can’t be subject to Presidential decree which could release him. Thus, to realistically have Ibrahim extradited like his friend Peter Greste, he needs to be put on trial, have a verdict and not be subject to a retrial. After that, he can be released through the same mechanisms as Greste has been. To say that this is a legal quagmire, especially considering how many times his trial has been adjourned, is an understatement.
Arguably, if all 15 members of the Irish Foreign Affairs Committee were to be allowed to visit Ibrahim directly and meet the relative authorities on a face-to-face basis, it could encourage a trial for Ibrahim at long last. A display of political unity would show the Egyptian authorities how determined we are to help our own citizens when they are in need. However, this is a major longshot as the Egyptian authorities’ communication with the Irish Foreign Affairs Committee is very poor, as has been shown by Senator Daly. Furthermore, the heterogeneous lobbying methods being applied by the Free Ibrahim campaign, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Foreign Affairs Committee are not helping Ibrahim’s situation at all, as the conflict between megaphone diplomacy and backchannels is becoming ever clearer.
Ibrahim Halawa could be starting his third year of third level education this September but instead he is trapped in inhumane conditions for a crime he did not commit. The fact that I am able to write this article without fear of repression is a right that I take for granted all too often. Cases such as that of Ibrahim show us that, in spite of Ireland’s problems, we have a lot to be grateful for and so not only is it our right but it is our duty to campaign for his release.
Whatever the outcome of Ibrahim’s story in the months and years to come, let’s be hopeful that someday he will return home to Ireland as a hero of free speech and justice.