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Witnessing Halawa’s purgatory

Everyone I have spoken to says Ibrahim Halawa is a character: a joker who, like many teens, always wanted to be famous. A sad irony that fame has come to him in such awful circumstances: Ibrahim Halawa, along with 492 other protesters, faces the death penalty.
Human Rights NGOs Amnesty and Reprieve have both investigated his case and deem him a prisoner of conscience. His trial has been postponed repeatedly. He is not permitted to testify in his defence. His lawyer is not permitted to visit him in prison to hear his version of events. When the court sits, Ibrahim and his co-defendants are kept behind a glass wall and cannot hear the evidence being presented against them.
Ibrahim travelled to Cairo in 2013 to visit relatives. He was there when the first democratically elected president of Egypt, Mohamad Morsi, was overthrown by the military. He joined the thousands of others who protested. No matter what your opinion of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, what unfolded on the streets of Cairo was shocking. Over one thousand protestors were left dead. Hundreds, including Ibrahim, were imprisoned.
Frustrated at the lack of progress in securing this Dublin teen’s release, I travelled out to Cairo for his tenth trial date. I was accompanied by his legal representative in Ireland, Darragh Mackin.
We witnessed first-hand the arbitrary nature of these show trials. Families of the defendants waited outside in the blistering heat; entry to the proceedings is at the whim of the judge. Only lawyers were permitted into the hearing this time. The trial was then summarily postponed until the 4th October. Hopes were dashed again, with devastation for the Halawa family at the realisation that Ibrahim would enter a third year of detention.
Once a week Ibrahim is permitted a three-minute visit from a relative. There is no physical contact allowed during these visits. Darragh Mackin and I accompanied Khadija, Ibrahim’s sister, as she made the weekly trek across Cairo to where the permits are issued. It is then an hour-long drive into the desert to Wadi Al Natroon prison.
Khadija explained how relatives with permits are regularly turned away. At any point the permit can be rejected.
We were brought into the Governor’s office when they realised I was an MEP. We sat there for an hour while they got Ibrahim ‘ready’. Khadija explained how they would shave and dress him in clean clothes for his visit with a parliamentarian.
When Ibrahim entered the room, his sister rushed to hug him. The emotional reunion of the two was heartbreaking. Deprived of physical contact for over a year, Ibrahim clung to his sister’s hand for the whole visit as he detailed the horrific prison conditions.
He is confined to a 5m x 4m cell with nine other prisoners, twenty-four hours a day. There are no beds, no shower, just a tap and the toilet is a hole in the floor.
Every morning he wakes to the sounds of prisoners screaming. He himself was beaten two weeks ago.
A glimmer of the ‘joker’ Ibrahim, I had heard so much about appeared as the visit progressed. He mocked his sisters shoes. Through tears there were smiles as she told him to stop. A normal sibling interaction in a very abnormal setting.
It was hard to listen to this young man talk about his depression, how he spent days trying to remember school lessons to try to keep his mind active. He should be two years into his engineering degree in Trinity. Instead he sits in a cell in Cairo facing the death penalty.
The Irish government has opted for a strategy of quiet diplomacy. From my conversations with NGOs and human rights lawyers working in Egypt and London I disagree with this strategy. There are, however, still a number of simple measures that the Irish government could take that would improve Ibrahim’s situation.
Ibrahim has asked to see an outside doctor for breathing difficulties. He struggled to breathe when we met with him. Minister Flanagan should write to his counterpart asking that this request be granted.
There has been no ambassador in Egypt since April. The consulate based in Cairo covers four other countries. Fast-tracking the appointment of the new ambassador would ease the workload on the consulate. More importantly, an ambassador carries more status for dealing with Egyptian officials. The Australian Consulate brought Peter Greste’s family with them when they visited him in prison. The Irish Consulate should seek to do the same for the Halawas.
These steps may be small but they would make a huge difference to the morale of this young Dublin teen. •