Four years in jail and 25,000 hours of diplomatic effort

Ibrahim Halawa’s eventual release was the result of a painstaking official campaign

Ibrahim Halawa with Fr Seamus Fleming who made a presentation to welcome Ibrahim home after his four years in prison in Cairo. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Ibrahim Halawa with Fr Seamus Fleming who made a presentation to welcome Ibrahim home after his four years in prison in Cairo. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons


As the lead judge in Ibrahim Halawa’s trial in Egypt began delivering his verdict in mid-September, there were three possible outcomes. The best was an acquittal. The next best was a short custodial sentence. The worst was a long prison sentence.

Irish diplomats in Cairo and their colleagues in the consular division of the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin had spent many months preparing for all of the three eventualities.

“There were very extensive contingencies in place for all three, right down to the fine detail,” a Government source with in-depth knowledge of the Halawa case said.

If there was a short sentence, a strategy would kick in demanding Halawa’s release on the basis that he had already served nearly four years in jail, in often difficult circumstances.

If a longer sentence was imposed, the Government would request Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to make good on an undertaking he gave in late 2015 to use his presidential powers to release Halawa.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar had, it now emerges, taken the precaution of telephoning Sisi on August 28th exactly to remind him that he had made such a commitment.

Even for an acquittal, there was a comprehensive plan in place. A letter had to be got from the prosecutor saying Halawa had been acquitted. He needed to be issued with a new passport, and it needed a new immigration stamp.

Outskirts of Cairo

Even before the release date, Irish embassy staff had visited the police station on the outskirts of Cairo where his release would be processed to establish relations with the commander there.

That attention to detail was redolent of the approach of the Department of Foreign Affairs during four tense and difficult years to secure the release from custody of the teenager from Firhouse.

Earlier this week, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney disclosed that no other single case in Irish consular history had involved so much effort, 20,000 hours at least in the past four years.

“I would say it’s even higher than that,” said the source, “closer to 25,000 hours.” When drilled down, it emerges that it is no idle or exaggerated claim. The Irish Embassy in Cairo, with a diplomatic staff of three, has devoted 80 per cent of its time to the Halawa case since his arrest in August 2013.

Ibrahim, along with his three sisters – Somaia, Fatima and Omaima – had taken refuge in a mosque in Ramses Square after a demonstration by supporters of the ousted Muslim Brotherhood government. All were arrested but his sisters were released shortly afterwards on bail.

During the 3½ years of laborious pre-trial process, there were 70 consular visits by staff to him. Each of these involved two diplomats, and required advance preparation, permission forms, liaison with Dublin and the Halawa family (also to convey any messages they had), as well as extensive debriefing.

In addition there were 37 court dates in the case, including 25 adjournments. All of that was done by the team of three headed up initially by Ambassador Isolde Moylan and then by her successors Damian Cole and Sean O’Regan.

Back in Dublin, the consular division headed first by Caitriona Ingoldsby, followed by Peadar Carpenter and latterly by Pat Bourne devoted an inordinate amount of time to the case, with daily and weekly meetings, endless contacts and research.

Intensely involved

Politically, it involved Enda Kenny and, after him, Varadkar, along with with three ministers for foreign affairs – Eamon Gilmore, Charlie Flanagan then Simon Coveney. Each had a different approach, but each made the case a priority.

Kenny had at least eight engagements with Sisi, two of them face-to-face, including a crucial meeting in 2015. Gilmore was intensely involved at the time Ibrahim’s sisters were released.

His successors, Flanagan and Coveney, spoke to Bourne almost every working day on the case. Flanagan met the Egyptian minister for foreign affairs, Sameh Shukri, a total of 12 times over three years.

Since Varadkar became Taoiseach there has been contact with Bourne and his staff every day, with Varadkar writing to Sisi twice about the Halawa case, along with his August 28th reminder.

Beyond that, the department also worked through the EU. Its foreign affairs high representative Federica Mogherini raised the Halawa case at international events.

“It got to a situation where all Irish Ministers were on alert for any gathering where they might meet a senior Egyptian minister. The Minister for Communications lobbied the Egyptian Minister for Posts and Telegraphs for example.”

So why did this one case occupy so much time? The over-riding concern was that Halawa was essentially a child, a 17-year-old minor. That underscored all of the effort.

The situation was complex from the start. Morsi had been ousted in a military coup. While in office, he had tried to replace the secular judicial system with one based on Sharia law.

Ibrahim Halawa had been caught up in a Muslim Brotherhood demonstration and had sought refuge in the el-Fatah Mosque. From the start, the trial involving over 490 defendants had political overtones.

‘Innocent boy’

“He was an innocent boy. He was was not Muslim Brotherhood. But the Egyptian judiciary always saw this as a Muslim Brotherhood trial. The judge was not going to release hundreds of what they saw as definite and confirmed militants on to the street,” said one source, interviewed for this article.

Early on, the Irish diplomatic effort was low-key, attracting criticism from the family and from campaigners such as Sinn Féin MEP Lynn Boylan for not being assertive enough.

Then, the department took a decision to involve the family as much as possible, to keep them in the loop, to ensure they received “no surprises”. The department’s sense was, sources say, that was achieved, but there were occasional tensions between the Government and the family.

Australian TV journalist Peter Greste, then working with al-Jazeera, was arrested at the same time as Halawsa, and, indeed, shared a cell with the young Irish man.

Sisi created a specific law, Decree 140, that allowed him to deport a foreign national when it was deemed in the national interest. It was used for Greste, but it created difficulties with the Egyptian judiciary which viewed it as interfering with their independence. Afterwards, Sisi was reluctant to use it.

Frequently, critics said the Irish had not been as assertive as the Australians had been for Greste. This is denied strongly by sources who said the Irish repeatedly pushed for the use of Decree 140.

The Irish were as robust, even more so, than the Australians, argues one: “We had the Australian play book from its minster and the diplomats. Irish officials made a point of finding out who was on the Australian team and speaking to each of them at length individually.

Nationality issue

“Officials went into the office [in Dublin] at six in the morning to talk to diplomats in Canberra. They stayed until 10 at night to talk to Australian diplomats in Ottawa and Washington. They also spoke to Peter Greste.

“We knew everything they did at all levels.”

Perhaps because of the nationality issue – Ibrahim only ever had an Irish passport but under Egyptian law anyone born to Egyptian parents is automatically considered an Egyptian citizen – and the unpopularity of Decree 140 with the judiciary (which jealously guarded its independence), it was not triggered for Halawa.

Irish diplomats looked at other ways. Ibrahim was the youngest of 413 protesters who were detained. They engaged Egyptian lawyers to explain the intricacies of its constitution and its criminal code.

Halawa was considered a minor under Egyptian law, it emerged. Equally, it emerged that people should not be held for more than two years on remand, without bail. Both avenues were pursued vigorously but were implacably refused by the trial judge.

There was also a call for the Egyptians to be brought before international courts for breaching Halawa’s human rights, but, ultimately, it was rejected. It would not have an impact on Cairo, and it could create antagonism and delay his trial.

Relations with Cairo, the Irish decided, needed to stay cordial. One upshot of that was when there were concerns about his health, the Irish authorities were able to get an Irish-based doctor into the prison to carry out an independent assessment.

“By getting them to agree that, we were able to achieve something remarkable and unprecedented in international consular history.

“If you are outside the process and not privy to the complications, it is easy to be a hurler on the ditch saying throw on a few more centre-forwards,” said the source.

Diplomatic breakthrough

The big diplomatic breakthrough was achieved in November 2015 when Enda Kenny secured a a very clear commitment personally from Sisi that, whatever the outcome, Halawa would be coming home.

“Essentially if he was convicted and given a sentence, Sisi would have used his powers under the constitution, by giving either a Decree 140 or a presidential pardon.”

That was treated as confidential initially. It was shared with the family and a few others. Eventually it emerged in public as Kenny and Flanagan were repeatedly pressed on progress in the case. The parliamentary delegation in January this year, led by Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghail, managed to get Sisi to restate it on the record.

In the end, the actual verdict took a purgatorially long time to arrive. The judge had 30 days to deliver it and delivered it on the 29th. “In Paddy Power parlance, the odds were for a short sentence. But then there was no evidence presented and so the acquittal was not surprising.”

Once he was acquitted, all the meticulously planned arrangements kicked into place. It took time because of the copious form-filling and bureaucracy. Ibrahim enjoyed the so-called decompression time after his release where he visited relatives and did some shopping. And then there was the memorable flight home accompanied by Ambassador Sean O’Regan.

It had taken four years of his life. It had taken 25,000 hours of effort from the Irish authorities. But as the joyful homecoming scenes in Dublin Airport showed, it was all worth it.

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