Ibrahim Halawa trial: Irish Government should support call for investigation

Ireland should condemn Egypt’s flagrant disregard for international standards


Today an Irish teenager lies abandoned to his fate in a Cairo prison, cut off from the world. Ibrahim Halawa was arrested in August 2013 near Cairo’s Ramses Square by security forces, who bundled him into a squalid jail two days after they had carried out what Human Rights Watch has condemned as “one of the world’s largest mass killings of demonstrators in a single day in recent history”. It far exceeded the daily death toll in Tiananmen Square in 1989 or the number who died at the hands of Uzbek forces during the Andijan Massacre in 2005.

Arrested as a child

Muslim Brotherhood

The teenager’s case file contains no evidence to link him to any of the crimes he is alleged to have committed. It gives no reason, other than his presence at the mosque, to arrest him at all. And yet Halawa was arrested – at 17 years of age, a child under international law – one of a group of 494, rounded up and charged with crimes that carry life imprisonment or the death penalty. He has been left to languish in rotten conditions ever since.

In the two years since his arrest he has been severely mistreated. There are persistent and credible allegations that he has been denied treatment for a gunshot wound to his hand (sustained when gunfire was used, unnecessarily, during his arrest); that he has been stripped naked and whipped with metal chains; that he has suffered routine verbal taunts about being executed – all at the hands of the prison officers supposedly responsible for his welfare.

Amnesty International report that such physical and mental mistreatment of prisoners has become widespread in Egypt. The Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy has described conditions in Tora Prison, where Halawa is held, as “psychologically unbearable”.

In the two years since his arrest, Halawa has also been denied the most basic requirements of procedural fairness. He faces vague, generic charges; he does not have access to any of his lawyers; he cannot attend court hearings in his case; he will not be able to see or hear witnesses against him; and he cannot call his own witnesses.

The trial, due to start tomorrow, for him and 493 others, will inevitably be unfair. The backdrop is that the Egyptian courts have recently conducted many other flagrantly unfair mass trials, which the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, has described as “outrageous” and in clear breach of international human rights law.

For example, in March 2014, Minya Criminal Court sentenced 529 people to death for alleged participation in an attack on a police station. The trial took under an hour, the court prevented defence lawyers from presenting their case or calling witnesses, and the vast majority of defendants were tried and convicted in their absence.

In spite of his isolation, Ibrahim Halawa’s name has become well known in Ireland. What is less well known are the steps which we, his lawyers, have taken to shine an international spotlight on the serious violations of his rights which he has endured, in advance of his trial.

We have recently filed applications with three United Nations bodies, requesting them to urgently investigate Halawa’s case: the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention; the Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; and the Special Rapporteur on Counterterrorism and Human Rights. The Irish Government has been asked to formally support these applications, but regrettably they have not agreed to do so.

An Irish citizen is held in arbitrary detention overseas, facing serious charges, and without access to his lawyers. Surely his Government should support calls for urgent investigation by expert international bodies of his detention, conditions and treatment.

Halawa has been receiving important consular support from the Irish Embassy in Cairo. But it is not enough. Why hasn’t the Irish Government – at the highest level – been more outspoken in supporting its citizen and in condemning Egypt’s grave disregard for international human rights?

When a US citizen, Mohamed Soltan, was imprisoned in Egypt for almost two years on charges that he supported an Islamist protest, the Obama administration was strident in its criticism.

In March 2014, a US State Department spokeswoman described the 529 death sentences in Minya as “shocking, unconscionable” and the use of mass trials as representing “a flagrant disregard for basic standards of justice”. Secretary of State John Kerry made clear that US aid to Egypt – suspended in 2013 because of the military overthrow of a democratically elected government and the crackdown on peaceful protesters – would remain suspended unless the Egyptian government changed its ways.

Similarly, when journalist Peter Greste was let out of Egypt in February 2015, it was after public criticism of the system by the Australian government and repeated direct requests from Australian prime minister Tony Abbott to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and by foreign minister Julie Bishop to her counterpart in Cairo.

Suffered enough

A great many of them, having reached the end of the road down which Halawa is being swept, have paid with their lives.

The Irish Government has a chance to prevent the same from happening to Halawa. He is innocent. He has suffered enough. Let’s bring him home.

Caoilfhionn Gallagher, Katie O’Byrne and Mark Wassouf are barristers from Doughty Street Chambers who act for Ibrahim Halawa and his family.

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