Hussein Halawa: ‘Four years, one month and five days I haven’t seen my son’
Father says he advised Ibrahim to enter mosque during chaos in Egypt in 2013
Halawa Snr has been the imam of the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland in the south Dublin suburb for almost 21 years, and chairman of the Irish Council of Imams since it was established in 2006.
“My heart was beating hard as I sat down to watch the trial,” he says. “They gave out the life sentences first, and then continued to run through all the sentences until they reached the acquittals and the first name was Ibrahim Halawa.
“I made sujood [prostration] to God and I couldn’t help but cry tears of joy whilst also wishing that freedom is granted to all those unfairly detained around the world,” he tells The Irish Times.
Words can’t describe how desperately I’ve been waiting to see him
Quickly, the family home in Firhouse filled with “screams, tears and happiness”, with neighbours rushing in to congratulate them on the ending of an ordeal that began when his son and three daughters – Fatima, Somaia and Omaima – were arrested in Egypt in 2013.
Every day since, the arrests has been etched on his mind: “Four years, one month and five days I haven’t seen my son,” he says. “Words can’t describe how desperately I’ve been waiting to see him.
“The Egyptian authorities never allowed my son to speak to me on the phone, even for a minute. Even though he would tell them my only wish is just to speak to my dad. The basics of human rights, Egypt denied.”
His son, says Mr Halawa, entered prison as a 17-year-old boy, but he will emerge in coming days as a man.
Thanking God “endlessly for the massive, massive blessing” that Ibrahim had shared a cell with professors, intellectuals, journalists and academics, “people with sound minds. Thank God he wasn’t with anyone that had any extremist views or anything like that”.
Mr Halawa says he wants to thank the Irish people “from the bottom of my heart, even those who disagreed with us, but especially those who came from outside Dublin and travelled all the way to be there at demonstrations in support of Ibrahim’s case.
“The Taoiseach [Leo Varadkar], the Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Irish embassy in Egypt, the whole team, they were really, really invested in the case, much more than we expected from them. I thank them from my heart . . . I also want to thank President Michael D Higgins, the great intellectual and humanitarian. Whenever I met him at any event, he always asked me about Ibrahim.”
Egypt’s political situation has been tense since 2013, especially after the military coup, led by now-president Abdelfattah Al-sisi, overthrew Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood – a religious-political movement which would be later in 2013 declared a terrorist group by the interim government (Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and many other civil rights groups do not classify the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation).
On August 14th, 2013, in the wake of the coup d’etat, security forces demolished a sit-in in Rabaa al-Adawiya Square, which Human Rights Watch said left more than 800 people dead, leading to a series of protests, including one held in Ramses Square, where Ibrahim and his sisters were arrested.
Mr Halawa said he was in Ireland and was in contact with his children amid the chaos. “They called me, I told them to head home but they said there was a curfew [imposed by the government] and they didn’t know where to go. Everyone was entering the mosque, so I told them to enter the mosque because it would be safe. They entered the mosque in the hopes that they would wait out the curfew and go home in the morning, but that didn’t happen.”
Egypt’s political situation was charged at the time, but that has always been the case for Egypt in some way or another. To those who have family there, however, going on holiday is not uncommon.
“My son has roots, just like many people here do. People have roots from different countries. You can’t tell Irish Americans, for example, that they shouldn’t visit Ireland. He went to visit his family in Egypt and go on a holiday,” Mr Halawa says.
“And during the time he was there, he saw a protest calling for freedom. When there’s a protest calling for freedom in Ireland, people can go out without fearing persecution. He found people asking for justice and asking for people to live as humans. It was a peaceful protest and he went out with them. If he was in Germany and he came across a protest calling for freedom, he would have joined them.”
He said it is a case of “morals and principles” and those don’t change across continents.
“When I stand on the pulpit here [in the mosque] I condemn all terrorist attacks around the world. I stand on the pulpit and say terrorism has no religion. I’m standing up for my morals and principles, and these principles are the same wherever I go. Humanity is irrelevant of colour, race or religion.”
When they speak, it comes from a place of a similar wound and deep pain, which means they can convey meaning better than I can
The three sisters were released on bail in 2013, but not Ibrahim. Last Monday, all four were acquitted of all charges. Mr Halawa said his circumstances had made it difficult to be as heavily involved in the campaign to bring him home as his daughters were.
“I passed on the case to my daughters because they’ve been through what Ibrahim has been through – so when they speak, it comes from a place of a similar wound and deep pain, which means they can convey meaning better than I can.
“The other factor is that being a part of this organisation [the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland], and as an imam of this mosque, I didn’t want people to think I was using and exploiting my platform, position and job for personal advantage.”
Mr Halawa said he got messages of support from all over the world. “Everyone showed compassion to my son’s case, not because he’s my son, but because they saw that he was truly innocent and was being oppressed and unfairly incarcerated.”
“He was a child. He wasn’t guilty,” he says. “He was always innocent.”