After 850 days in jail, collective urgent action is required to bring Ibrahim home
Published 18/12/2015 | 02:30
On Tuesday, Ibrahim Halawa's trial in Egypt was postponed for the 11th time since he was arrested and detained, aged 17, on August 17, 2013. He has spent 850 days, over one-third of his precious teenage years, in arbitrary pre-trial detention with no meaningful review. His mass trial, in which he stands charged with 493 others without proper legal representation, is now listed to begin tomorrow.
Information coming out of Egypt is limited. It is reported that the latest adjournment has been ordered because one of the defendants was not in court due to illness. This was the same reason given for the previous adjournment in October. From what we do know, Ibrahim's mother and sister attended at the court in which the trial was due to be heard, but were barred from entering. While I commend the actions of Ireland's Ambassador to Egypt in speaking directly with Ibrahim's family in Cairo, it is shocking that his family have been denied access in this way.
If the trial goes ahead tomorrow, or on a date in the future, Ibrahim (inset) will be tried en masse with his 493 co-defendants.
The precise charges and potential sentence Ibrahim faces remain unclear. The charge sheet sent to his lawyers does not include any evidence linking Ibrahim to the alleged offences, and stipulates that three of the charges may be punishable by death.
As far as we know, Ibrahim has not been permitted access to his Egyptian lawyers. The Irish Government has also declined to facilitate any access to his international legal team based in Belfast and London.
A mass trial with no clarity on the charges and no proper access to a lawyer cannot be regarded as fair. The trial, if and when it goes ahead, will inevitably breach minimum guarantees under international human rights treaties and customary international law.
Previous mass trials in Egypt have been condemned by the EU, the African Commission on Human Rights and the UN. Ibrahim's pre-trial detention for two and a half years with no proper reviews is excessive and arbitrary, in violation of those same standards.
Like many others, I am gravely concerned for Ibrahim's life, health and wellbeing. He has been living in appalling prison conditions since his arrest. He has been refused medical treatment to a gunshot wound in his hand, leaving him permanently disfigured. Letters from him describe regular beatings, being stripped naked in front of inmates and guards and being hit with metal chains. There is insufficient access to daylight and exercise. Cells are unsanitary and food infested with insects.
Former prisoners who were detained in Egypt in similar conditions, such as Mohamed Soltan, have given direct evidence of systematic torture and ill-treatment in prison. On the available information, Ibrahim's mental and physical health has markedly deteriorated. It has been reported that he is now on hunger strike. His family claims that he has fainted on four occasions in recent weeks. A recent letter stated that he believes he is "waiting in a queue for my turn on a death row".
Our Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan has publicly supported the release of Ibrahim, and I deeply respect his stance on this. I am also aware of the concerted work of officials in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Irish Embassy staff in Cairo on Ibrahim's case. I have raised the case as a Commencement Matter in the Seanad and I thank Mr Flanagan for his considered response.
Mr Flanagan has affirmed that the Government has formally supported a request for Ibrahim's deportation to Ireland under an Egyptian Presidential decree, Law 140, which allows for the transfer of foreign criminals and suspects detained in Egypt, but has received advice from Egypt that this will not be applied until after legal proceedings are concluded. The minister has also stated that the Irish Government supports any application made to the Egyptian court, but that all decisions are matters for the Egyptian authorities.
I commend the minister's statements. However, it is clear that the time has come for more than aspiration. More must now be done to secure Ibrahim's release. Too much time has passed and current strategies are not working. I have urged the minister to consider other ways to respond to this treatment of our citizen, whether that be a fresh request under Law 140 or renewed and unequivocal calls for its application pursuant to the previous request.
The Irish Government may also consider providing assistance with and formal support for a bail application. I also urge the Government to support Ibrahim's legal team in gaining access to him.
Further, it is time for all organisations and individuals with a stake in human rights to speak out. Organisations including Amnesty, Reprieve, Rights Watch UK, Child Rights International Network, the International Association of Youth and Family Judges and Magistrates, Barnardos, teachers' associations and unions have long been demanding justice for Ibrahim. The Immigrant Council of Ireland has recently expressed public support for Ibrahim's release, stating that the Government must urgently re-assess its response to the case and the Taoiseach must consider mounting a similar diplomatic initiative to that which secured the release of Brian Keenan 30 years ago. Yesterday, Members of the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly in favour of a resolution calling on the Egyptian authorities to immediately release Ibrahim. I urge all human and children's rights organisations to join these calls for Ibrahim's release. I also hope that our Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission tables its support. Ibrahim has suffered enough.
Detention for 850 days is on any view unjustifiable. His trial has been inordinately delayed and will inevitably be unfair.
The continued serious violations of his basic human rights are not acceptable. Collective urgent action is required to secure his freedom and bring him home.
Dr Katherine Zappone is an Independent Senator and a former member of the Irish Human Rights Commission