Ibrahim Halawa future unclear despite Government engagement with Egypt

Coalition urged to advocate more aggressively on teenager’s behalf

While Ibrahim Halawa will be happy that his cellmates, Al Jazeera journalists Mohamed Fahmy, Peter Greste and Baher Mohamed, have been granted a retrial, he will be wondering what is to become of himself.

Halawa, who is charged with murder, attempted murder and destruction of public property has been held in Cairo’s Tora prison, along with the three journalists, and had court proceedings postponed twice since his incarceration in August 2013.

Human rights organisation Amnesty International has recognised the Irish teenager as a “prisoner of conscience” and last month organised a protest outside the Egyptian embassy to raise awareness of his situation. Reprieve, a UK-based charity, has also taken up his case and called upon former prime minister Tony Blair to use his influence to secure Halawa’s release.

The Government says it has had "high-level engagement with the Egyptian authorities on the case", However, it has been urged to advocate more aggressively on Halawa's behalf by family members, teacher union representatives and politicians such as Senator David Norris and TD Clare Daly.

Ibrahim Halawa was born in Ireland of Egyptian parents. He had gone to Egypt for a family holiday after the completion of his Leaving Certificate in June 2013.

At the time tensions were escalating between the Egyptian security forces and then president Mohamed Morsi, who had been elected in the aftermath of the Arab Spring protests.

Morsi was toppled on July 3rd, triggering widespread revolt across the country. A focal point was a camp at Rabaa al- Adayiwa in eastern Cairo, where opposition politicians and supporters had gathered, including a delegation from the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Six weeks later, on August 14th, the authorities moved to shut down the camp. In the ensuing violence at least 817 people were killed, according to Human Rights Watch.

The organisation’s analysis which was based on interviews with 122 survivors and witnesses said the camp members were prevented from leaving. The report also included evidence of unarmed protesters being killed by snipers and helicopters flying overhead.

Three members of the Halawa family, Somaia, Fatima and Omaima, were at the camp that day but escaped. In an interview with The Irish Times Somaia Halawa said the scenes there were "very shocking, you could not believe all that was happening. I have never seen anything like that before".

The violence continued across Cairo and two days later the Halawa sisters and their younger brother Ibrahim went back out on to the streets. It was a decision Somaia said she thinks “a lot about now” but they had “many friends out there and couldn’t tell what was happening from the media reports on Egyptian TV”.

Second crackdown

Once again the siblings became caught up in further chaos and retreated to the al- Fateh Mosque for safety. But, this was to become the scene of a second crackdown by the army and police. Further shootings began. The mosque was set on fire. There were more fatalities.

Omaima was stripped and told to lie on the ground. Fatima was shot in the legs with rubber bullets. Ibrahim was shot in the hand. All four siblings were arrested and loaded into lorries.

The sisters were to spend three months in prison, an experience Somaia describes as “very difficult and frightening.” Intense efforts were made to secure their freedom. Eventually they were allowed return to Ireland but Ibrahim was left behind in a separate prison. He has been accused of shooting at the police.

Thorough examination

This has been denied by his family and Amnesty International. The organisation’s executive director, Colm O’Gorman, said it has conducted a “thorough examination of the case and Ibrahim was not at the location of the alleged shooting”. He has called for Halawa’s release and return to Ireland saying that he “awaits a trial that we do not believe will be fair or in accordance with due process”.

Since the arrest Halawa’s mother has stayed in Cairo and visits him every Tuesday. The family say he is doing “all right” but is very anxious to leave. Conditions were rough at the start of his imprisonment and he was badly beaten. He is afraid of further violence.

It is by all accounts a seismic contrast to the life Ibrahim Halawa enjoyed in Firhouse until the summer of 2013. He was, according to Somaia, “sporty and fun.” There are five years between him and his other brothers and sisters. He was a surprise final baby brother for them and “adored and looked after by everyone”.

Halawa went to the Holy Rosary primary school where his former principal, Max Cannon, spoke of his deep concern about the situation.

“This is a particularly great injustice. Ibrahim was a lovely boy and was friends with my son. He is a child. I cannot imagine what it would be like for my teenager to be in this situation,” he said.

Cannon also spoke very highly of the Halawas, describing them as a “very very good and close-knit family”. He said he was worried that Ibrahim Halawa’s name and faith were undermining his case in Ireland. It was ironic because “Ibrahim was one of the kids who would have had no hesitation in joining the nativity or Christmas play.

His parents have always been very supportive. He is Irish and his parents just happen to be Egyptian.”

Halawa’s

father, Sheikh Hussein Halawa, is the most senior Muslim cleric in Ireland and imam of the Islamic Cultural Centre in Clonskeagh in Dublin. It was suggested by US officials in WikiLeaks correspondence released in 2011 that he was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Somaia denied any overt link between the Muslim Brotherhood and her family though said she had friends who were members. Her family are “not political in that way”, she said.

However, the Muslim Brotherhood issue is central to Halawa's case and thousands of others in Egypt. The Islamist group has long been a substantial force within the Middle East especially within Egypt. They were outlawed until the Arab Spring and the removal of former prime minister Hosni Mubarak.

Opportunity squandered

In 2012 they became the first democratically elected political party in Egypt and their candidate Mohamed Morsi became

president. Many observers believe that Morsi squandered his opportunity by seeking to increase the powers of the executive and to limit those of the judiciary. Tensions rose higher in early 2013 when Muslim Brotherhood militants attacked their opponents.

The resulting military coup had some popular support but ironically the new regime led by Gen Sisi has had an even further negative impact on the judicary’s autonomy. David Butter, an associate fellow with Chatham House said “the definitions over the last 18 months under which a person can be locked up is all-encompassing. It is a very disturbed system”.

Membership of the Muslim Brotherhood has been outlawed again. Though nobody has been arrested on this specific charge thousands of people thought to be sympathetic to the organisation have been arrested and are awaiting trial. The numbers to be tried in a highly disorganised system has led to walkouts by judges.

Butter said it is "absolutely plausible" that somebody like Ibrahim Hallawa may have been "caught up" in this scenario. The same has been said of the Al Jazeera journalists Greste, Behar and Mohamed. The state of Qatar, which finances the TV channel, is known to be sympathetic to Muslim Brotherhood.

Al Jazeera English’s sister channel Al Jazeera Arabic was found to have broadcast footage shot by Muslim Brotherhood members and had not identified it as such. It is widely believed that these associations were considered sufficient to lead to their arrest.

The situation appears hopeful now for the three Al Jazeera journalists. For Ibrahim Halawa the future is not so clear.