Irish man in Egypt prison a ‘real character’, says freed Al Jazeera journalist

Al Jazeera journalist Peter Greste shared prison cell with Ibrahim Halawa in Egypt


The Al Jazeera journalist released from an Egyptian prison earlier this month has described his former cell mate Irish teenager Ibrahim Halawa as a “real character” of “remarkable mental strength”.

Peter Greste said he was “very, very surprised to see an Irish man in the cell alongside us” and that he had “brought a real energy to the cell and a real sense of humour”. They went on to share quarters for four months until Greste’s release.

“On the day I walked out I gave him a big hug, along with all the other cellmates that we had spent time with. Like everybody he was overjoyed that I was on my way out. Obviously [it] was a mix of emotions for all of us, some optimism that if one of us was able to go free, there was a chance for others but also frustration at still being stuck behind.”

Greste was sentenced to seven years in jail in December 2013 by the Egyptian government for news reporting that was “damaging to national security” alongside colleagues Mohamed Fahmy and Bahar Mohamed.

A huge international furore resulted, with many human right groups calling for the journalists’ release. Greste was eventually deported to Australia after more than 400 days in prison, including a month in solitary confinement.

The Australian-born journalist said he was “stunned” by the reaction to their confinement but feels their case fits within “a chilling narrative” which includes “the beheadings by Islamic State, the draconian responses of some governments, the Charlie Hebdo attacks and the killings in Denmark at the weekend.”

The experience, he said, has reaffirmed his faith in the mainstream media as it has the “ability to conduct conversations across different communities”.

Such dialogue he feels is “crucial to peace” and he compared global conflicts to those of a family, saying that “you have to keep conversations going” rather than letting someone “disappear”.

His view is that the situation now in the media is “incredibly dangerous”, with journalists forced to avoid certain types of stories.

Greste had been very careful to develop a routine while in prison.

“I knew I needed to keep fit, physically, intellectually and spiritually. A big part of this was keeping a level head. I think the biggest danger in prison is your own mind, the games your own mind can play on you. If it starts to run out of control, if you start to get depressed, then you’re in real trouble.”

So he practised meditation every morning while his colleagues slept. After this he ran up and down a 30m corridor outside their cell for an hour each day, completing “up to 10km each day”.

He had also made use of an exercise regime called 5BX which was developed by the Canadian air force to keep fit in relatively small spaces, and acquired material to study for an MA in international relations.

Although he still loves journalism, he says that going back to east Africa now is “not going to work.” Instead he may advocate for greater press freedom.

Greste, Fahmy and Mohamed were awarded a special judges’ prize by the Royal Television Society for services to journalism last Thursday night. Fahmy and Mohamed were released on bail last week and face a retrial on Monday. Hopes are high that they will secure a full release.

The Egyptian government has been facing heavy international condemnation following the arrests of thousands of people, including Ibrahim Halawa, after the deposal of the previous president Mohamed Morsi.

Halawa had been holidaying in Cairo with family members after the completion of his Leaving Cert in 2013, and along with another 493 defendants is charged with murder, attempted murder and destruction of public property. A hearing had been scheduled for the start of February but was postponed until March. If convicted he could face the death penalty.

He and his family vehemently deny the charges against him and he has been adopted as a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International.

According to Greste it had been “a very tough” time for Halawa.

“Eighteen months is a very long period, particularly without any progress, being stuck in the system in the way that he has. He’s dealt with this with remarkable strength and stoicism.”

The Irish Government has said it is doing all it can to secure Halawa’s release.