The trial in Egypt of Irishman Ibrahim Halawa has been adjourned until October at the earliest, dashing widespread hopes that the protracted legal process would end today.
The judge at the mass trial of 494 people had previously indicated that verdicts and sentences would be handed down today after a drawn-out process that had been adjourned 13 times over almost three years.
At a short hearing this morning, however, the judge said he wished to consider video evidence in the case. He said a technical committee would be established to examine the evidence and that this group would report back by October 2nd.
A judge who presided over the initial stages of the trial but retired last year had previously said he would not accept the video evidence.
Mr Halawa (20) has been in prison since August 2013, when he was arrested at the Fateh mosque in Cairo during protests against the ousting of then-president Mohamed Morsi.
Sister: ‘Deeply troubling’
Speaking after the hearing this morning, Mr Halawa’s sister, Somaia, said the outcome was “deeply troubling”.
“To say we are devastated by today’s outcome is an understatement. It was confirmed on the previous occasion, and reaffirmed in the interim, that judgment would be passed in Ibrahim’s case today. It now appears that a decision has been taken by the judiciary to reopen the case, and to reassess video evidence that has always been available,” she said.
“This decision comes as a surprise to our family, and the Irish Government, in circumstances where we all understood the proceedings would come to a conclusion today. This sparks a further delay, in what appears to be an indication that the trial will now start afresh in October.”
Ms Halawa said the family and their lawyers would meet representatives of the Government in the coming days to discuss the development and the way forward.
Mr Halawa’s solicitor, Darragh Mackin, said the outcome of today’s hearing was “an appalling surprise” to all involved.
“We, in collaboration with the Irish government, have been continuously preparing for what, we all believed, to be the end of the judicial proceedings. For the trial to be reopened, and adjourned to October is entirely insupportable,” Mr Mackin said. “It is no secret that we have serious concerns and reservations about the criminal justice process in Egypt. These concerns have manifested themselves in today’s decision.
Two defendants released
Separately, the judge this morning ordered the release of two defendants but did not give reasons for their release. It was also announced that three other defendants had died.
It is understood that Mr Halawa and the other defendants were present in the court complex, but they were separated from the judge and the body of the court by a glass wall.
Amnesty : 'devastating blow'
Amnesty said the latest postponement was a "devastating blow" for Mr Halawa and his family. "The Egyptian legal system has descended into further farce with this fourteenth delay in Ibrahim's trial," said Colm O'Gorman's, executive director of Amnesty in Ireland.
“There is no credible evidence against Ibrahim, who faces and a mass trial alongside 493 other defendants. A mass trial simply cannot meet the standards required for a fair trial as defined under international human rights law. It is staggering that almost three years into the case, the court has reportedly only now referred video evidence for technical examination.”
Charlie Flanagan: ‘extremely disappointed’
Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan said he was “extremely disappointed” by the latest delay and shared the Halawa family’s frustration.
“I will be conveying my concerns about this delay directly to the Egyptian Government and, notwithstanding the separation of powers, I will be seeking more information of the review of technical evidence ordered by the Court and its likely impact on this trial,” he said.
Mr Flanagan said that at a meeting with Mr Halawa’s father and sister earlier this week, he had reassured them of the Government’s commitment to achieving two objectives: to secure Mr Halawa’s return to Ireland as soon as possible and to ensure his welfare during his detention.
Ireland’s ambassador to Egypt was present in court for Wednesday’s hearing. “Ibrahim’s welfare is an important priority for our Embassy in Cairo, as it is at home in Ireland. We are continuing to provide consular assistance to Ibrahim through regular visits to him in the prison where he is being held,” Mr Flanagan said.
He added that he had recently underlined Irish concerns to his Egyptian counterpart and would continue to use “every possible opportunity” to raise the Government’s concerns with the Egyptian authorities.
Prisoner of conscience
Mr Halawa, from Firhouse in south Dublin, was 17-years-old when he and three sisters were arrested in Cairo, where they were visiting their extended family.
His sisters - Faitma, Omaima and Somaia - were released on bail after three months and returned to Dublin but he has been held in conditions that have been condemned by human rights groups.
Amnesty International has declared Mr Halawa a prisoner of conscience and called for his unconditional release.
The Egyptian government has said if convicted Mr Halawa could not face the death penalty, but his lawyers say that on the basis of the charges against him the death penalty is not excluded.
The Halawa case has dominated relations between Dublin and Cairo for the past three years.
Officials from the Irish embassy in the Egyptian capital have made 51 consular visits to Mr Halawa, while Taoiseach Enda Kenny and two ministers for foreign affairs - Eamon Gilmore and Charlie Flanagan - have raised the case on a number of occasions with their Egyptian counterparts.
It is understood that EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini has also raised the case with the Egyptians.
However, Egyptian authorities have maintained that the government cannot intervene while the judicial process is ongoing.
In an interview with The Irish Times last year, Egyptian ambassador Soha Gendi reiterated that stance, saying she "prayed" Mr Halawa would not face the most serious charges, "for us to be able to do something at a later stage".
In anticipation of a verdict today, members of Mr Halawa’s family and his solicitor Darragh Mackin of KRW Law met Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan on Tuesday to discuss the next steps.
A conviction would have brought the campaign for his release to a new stage that would have centred on efforts to secure either a pardon or a presidential decree ordering his release.
The latter was used to secure the release of the Australian journalist Peter Greste in 2015.