Legal action would imperil Halawa deal – officials

Simon Coveney told of passport application surge from Britain and Northern Ireland

Irish man Ibrahim Halawa has been in jail in Cairo for three and a half years after being arrested  in August 2013  during protests in Egypt

Irish man Ibrahim Halawa has been in jail in Cairo for three and a half years after being arrested in August 2013 during protests in Egypt

 

Any move by the Government to take legal action against Egypt over the treatment of Ibrahim Halawa would result in Cairo pulling back from a commitment to release the young Irish man, senior officials at the Department of Foreign Affairs have said.

In a briefing paper drafted last month for incoming Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney, officials identified the Halawa case as one of three “immediate and high priority issues” he faced, along with Brexit talks and efforts to restore the Northern Executive.

Referring to calls on the Government to take a case against Egypt at the International Court of Justice, the officials wrote that any such action would be “complex and protracted” and there would be no guarantee that it would be ultimately successful.

“Our assessment is that any such action would be viewed as hostile by Cairo and would result in the existing commitment to release Mr Halawa once the trial ends being taken off the table,” the memo states.

Diplomatic approach

The department believes that “the [relatively] early release of Mr Halawa is more likely to be achieved through a continuation of the current determined and firm political/diplomatic approach.”

Officials told Mr Coveney that Dublin had secured a commitment from Egyptian president Abdul Fattah al-Sisi in November 2015 that he would return Mr Halawa to Ireland after the ongoing trial ends – a pledge repeated to a delegation of TDs who visited Cairo in January.

Mr Halawa (21) from Firhouse in south Dublin, has been in jail in Cairo for 3½ years. He and hundreds of others were arrested in August 2013 at the Al Fateh grand mosque and Ramses Square in Cairo during protests against the ousting of then president Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The trial has been hearing evidence in recent months, but no evidence implicating Mr Halawa has been presented.

The officials suggested the reasons for the long delays in the trial included complications arising from a mass trial of 494 defendants as well as the fact that “some of the defendants expect harsh sentences, and thus have an incentive to string the process out”.

According to the memo, it “remains a possibility” that Mr Halawa will be acquitted. If that happened he should be able to return home “with minimal delay,” it states.

Prison term

“If he is found guilty and sentenced to a prison term, we will immediately press forward through diplomatic channels to ‘call in’ the commitment given by the Egyptian president to use his discretionary powers.”

Elsewhere in the briefing paper, officials note how Brexit has helped drive an “unprecedented” increase in passport applications. The Passport Service processed 750,000 applications last year, up almost 10 per cent on the previous year. So far this year 475,000 applications have been received, a rise of 14 per cent.

“The demand stems from increased travel linked to economic recovery as well as the impact of Brexit,” the officials state, noting that applications this year from Northern Ireland and Britain had risen by 44 per cent and 59 per cent on last year, respectively.

The briefing paper as released by the department contained a number of redactions. These included all substantive material on the restoration of the Northern Executive and a section on an ongoing review of the overseas mission network.