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Halawa acquittal preceded by sustained Irish diplomatic campaign

Family and Government differed on strategy at times during four-year legal saga

Members of the Halawa family – Nosayba, Omaima (with her baby Abdullah), Khadija, Fatima and Somaia – celebrate at home in Dublin after hearing news of their brother Ibrahim’s acquittal in Cairo. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

In normal circumstances, the outcome of Ibrahim Halawa’s trial would have been a foregone conclusion. Not a single piece of evidence implicating him in any crime was presented at his long trial, after all. But this chaotic and opaque legal saga has been anything but normal, so even in the hours leading up to the verdict, lawyers and diplomats were taking nothing for granted.

Irish officials had prepared for three possible outcomes: an acquittal; a conviction on relatively minor charges, perhaps with a sentence of time already served; or a conviction of more serious offences and a lengthy sentence.

None of those outcomes would necessarily have prevented Halawa from returning home to Ireland, provided – and it was an important caveat – that Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi kept his long-standing promise that the 21-year-old Irish man would be returned after a verdict. But had Halawa been convicted, it could have required drawn-out negotiations to call in Sisi’s commitment.

Halawa’s acquittal of all charges against him was the best-case scenario. The outcome was a cause for celebration for his family as well as the many lawyers, campaigners and diplomats who worked tirelessly for four years to keep his case in the public eye and ultimately to secure his release.

Adding to the family’s relief was the acquittal at the same trial of three of Ibrahim’s sisters – Somaia, Fatima and Omaima – who were arrested on the same day as Ibrahim but were released on bail in November 2013 and returned to Ireland.

Strained relations

The verdicts bring to an end a four-year drama that strained relations between Egypt and Ireland, pitched Government against Opposition and, above all, cost a young man four years of his life.

Ibrahim Halawa, whose father Sheikh Hussein is the imam of Dublin’s Clonskeagh mosque, had just sat his Leaving Cert in late June 2013 when he and his three sisters travelled to Cairo for a holiday. He would later say that he had wanted to go on a post-Leaving Cert holiday to Spain with his friends, but he was asked to accompany his sisters to Egypt. “I wish I’d gone to Spain,” Ibrahim told a visitor in 2014.

The Halawa siblings were arrested two months later, on August 16th, at the Al Fateh grand mosque, on what was billed as a “day of rage” over the ousting of president Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood earlier that month. The demonstrations that day were in response to the earlier demolition by security forces of a protest encampment in Rabaa al-Adawiya Square, which Human Rights Watch said left at least 817 people dead.

In his four years in detention, Halawa was moved from one overcrowded prison to another, his physical and mental state steadily deteriorating. Sources who visited him say conditions at Tora prison, one of the institutions where he was held, were appalling. “He was one of 15 people in a room. August. It was blazing heat. No air conditioning. No beds. The toilets were blocked and stinking,” one visitor told The Irish Times.

At one stage, Irish officials intervened when Ibrahim reported that men in balaclavas had entered his cell at Tora and beaten him with chains. Asked to describe his state of mind in early 2015, a source who met him said: “Absolutely lifeless.”

The Halawa case quickly became the most intensive consular case ever handled by an Irish government. Cairo-based diplomats visited Halawa regularly and attended all his court hearings, while a number of officials in Dublin worked close to full-time on the case. On several occasions, however, the Government and the Halawa family disagreed on strategy.

Media campaign

Irish officials believed parts of the Halawas’ media campaign was counter-productive and that open condemnation of Egypt was “weakening our capacity to intervene, when intervention becomes feasible,” as one official put it in 2015.

The family felt media coverage was an important tool, and believed the Government wasn’t pressing the Egyptians firmly enough. They also urged then taoiseach Enda Kenny to intervene personally with Sisi.

Eventually, that line of communication resulted in Sisi’s political commitment to release Halawa – but only after a verdict was delivered in the case. The Government’s analysis was that Sisi believed he could not intervene over the heads of the judiciary – an important centre of power in Cairo – without burning up some of his own political capital.

Privately, the Government’s efforts to use European Union leverage ran into problems. After the ousting of Morsi and the crackdown on his supporters, a number of southern European states resisted moves for the bloc to strongly condemn the military’s action. Those divisions persisted, diluting the EU’s influence on the ground in Cairo and hampering any attempt to speak with one voice on issues such as the Halawa case. The European Parliament, which called for Halawa’s immediate release, was an exception.

Much of this took place against a background of almost total stasis in the legal process. The trial was adjourned dozens of times over four years, and it was only early this year, with the appointment of a new judge to lead the three-man panel, that evidence began to be heard.

Halawa’s formal release from prison could take up to two days, according to a well-placed source. He will then have to be issued with a new passport through the Irish embassy in Cairo and taken off the Egyptian no-fly list to which he was added in 2013 because of his pending trial. All going well, Halawa will return home, to the country he left as a 17-year-old boy, within two weeks.

A number of years ago, when in conversation with a visitor, Halawa was asked what he would do when he came back to Ireland. “If I get back,” he replied, “I’ll never go south of Bray again.”