Halawa siblings to meet Egyptian prosecutor

The four Irish citizens are said to be in good health


The four Irish siblings being held in military detention at Cairo’s Tora prison after security forces stormed a mosque on Saturday are due to meet an Egyptian prosecutor later today but it is not known if they will face charges.

Irish diplomats in Cairo are seeking clarification on what charges, if any, might be pressed against Omaima Halawa (21), her sisters Fatima (23) and Soumaya (27) and brother Ibrahim (17).

The meeting was due to take place at the prosecutor’s office at 2pm but it now appears likely it will happen at Tora prison, which is located on the outskirts of the Egyptian capital, due to heightened security in the city. A representative from the Irish embassy will be present at the meeting.

It is understood a civilian prosecutor will deal with the case. This is viewed as a positive development given the military-imposed state of emergency in Egypt.

A Turkish diplomat visiting a Turkish national also detained after the mosque siege met the four siblings in Tora prison late yesterday. He said they were in good health and were being kept together.

Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs Joe Costello welcomed the fact contact had been made with the Halawas. They had been unable to contact their family since Saturday as their phones had been confiscated after they were detained.

“It’s good news that the Turkish diplomat spoke to them as late as yesterday and it’s a relief to hear that they are in good form and that they have been kept together. That was a big concern, that they may have been separated,” Mr Costello said. “But we’ll find out the attitude of the authorities today and we’ll move from there.”

Like many young Irish of Arab extraction, the Halawa siblings were riveted by the wave of revolutions and uprisings that swept the Middle East and north Africa in early 2011. The events unfolding in the countries where they or their parents were born triggered a political awakening among Irish-Arab youth that took several forms: some helped establish charities and civil society groups; others campaigned online and on the streets; and a small number joined rebel forces fighting in Libya and Syria. Some, such as Omaima and Fatima, both of whom studied digital media in Dublin, were inspired by the citizen journalism of the so-called Arab spring and wanted to help document its transitions.

Military detention

The four were taken to Tora prison after security forces stormed Cairo’s al-Fath mosque inside which the Halawas and other supporters of Egypt’s first democratically elected president Mohammed Morsi, who was overthrown by the military last month, had barricaded themselves.

The Halawas had joined protests at nearby Ramses Square on Friday, the day the Muslim Brotherhood had called for demonstrations against the ousting of the Brotherhood’s Morsi and the deadly security operation last Wednesday to evict his supporters from protest camps in the city.

The Halawas had also taken part in the weeks-long sit-in at Rabaa al-Adawiya, one of two encampments broken up by security forces last week with the loss of more than 600 lives. “They went to Rabaa to witness and record with pictures and video so that people can see that there are no terrorists among the protesters as the Egyptian authorities are claiming,” said their father, Sheikh Hussein Halawa, imam at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland, which is located in Clonskeagh, Dublin. A number of other Irish citizens of Egyptian extraction had also joined the Rabaa protest in recent weeks, some of them members of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has a strong presence in Ireland.

Two weeks ago the Halawas’ sister Nosayba posted a video on YouTube showing her siblings address the Rabaa crowd against a banner reading “Egyptians Abroad for Democracy”.

In a July 28th Facebook post, Omaima wrote: “I’m still and will be until our democracy is back, until our religion is no longer attacked . . . because we only fear Allah not bullets.”

In the days after the violent dispersal of the Rabaa protest she posted numerous photographs of the dead and wounded, writing: “This was the place I met the most amazing people, this was the place that truly made me proud to be an Egyptian . . . because people’s hearts there are only for the sake of Allah then every single place in Egypt will be Rabaa.”

Sheikh Halawa said he advised his children to seek refuge in the al-Fath mosque after clashes that eventually claimed the lives of scores of people erupted in Ramses Square on Friday. “They thought the mosque is a holy place and that they would be safe there but soon it was surrounded by the security forces.”

Automatic gunfire and screaming could be heard in the background as Omaima gave interviews to TV channels including Al Jazeera from inside the mosque, describing scenes of chaos. On Saturday morning she told RTÉ she and her siblings did not feel safe enough to leave the complex without a diplomatic escort.

Tear gas

“We are surrounded in the mosque both inside and outside,” she said. “The security forces broke in and threw tear gas at us.” The siblings told Al Jazeera they were too frightened to leave despite the promise of safe passage by the military because they had witnessed other women being set upon by a baying anti-Morsi mob, some armed with wooden sticks, as they tried to get out. A US reporter at the scene said some within the angry crowd threatened to “get to” a woman who had been doing interviews with Al Jazeera from inside the mosque, a possible reference to the Halawa sisters.