Almost four years after he was detained in Cairo as a 17-year-old boy, Ibrahim Halawa will soon learn the outcome of a farcical trial that has shamed Egypt and forced the young Irish man into an unspeakable ordeal. Halawa, from Firhouse in south Dublin, was detained with hundreds of others in August 2013 at the Al Fateh mosque and Ramses Square during protests against the ousting of then president Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. He has been in jail ever since. Detained in poor conditions in overcrowded prisons, his physical health has deteriorated and his morale has dipped with each delay in the legal process.
The trial itself falls far short of acceptable international standards. Halawa is one of 494 defendants whose cases have been grouped into a single mass trial. That would be chaotic and unfair under any circumstances, but long delays – the trial has been adjourned 27 times, often for several months at a time – have compounded the difficulty. Not a single piece of evidence produced in court to date implicates Halawa in any way.
The Department of Foreign Affairs says the fate of Halawa has received more time and resources than any other consular case. In briefing material for incoming Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney last month, the case was listed as one of three "immediate and high priority issues" he faced, along with Brexit talks and efforts to restore the Northern Executive. Although the Government's focus is clear, controversy has centred on its strategy. Critics argue that it should have taken a more confrontational approach, and that it should be taking Cairo to the international courts. For its part, the department believes that would be seen as a hostile act by the Egyptians and would jeopardise a commitment from President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi to return Halawa to Ireland after the trial ends.
The Government should have pressed Sisi earlier. For some time then taoiseach Enda Kenny resisted making direct appeals to the Egyptian leader, but when he finally did so it helped yield that November 2015 commitment. But the Government has also been working under significant constraints. Sisi could have intervened but it would have come at a domestic cost to him, particularly as the trial is seen in Egypt as one related to the Muslim Brotherhood. In a situation where even the United States has struggled at times to influence the regime in Cairo, the Government lacks serious leverage. The European Union has more, but attempts to apply pressure over the Halawa case at EU level have been stymied by a number of southern European states which resist all confrontation with Egypt.
The Government believes the trial could end within weeks. Everyone should hope it is right. The focus then must be on ensuring that Egypt makes good on its pledge to return Halawa home.