By Colm O’Gorman, Executive Director of Amnesty International Ireland. Previously published in the Sunday Business Post
On 8 February an Irish teenager who had spent 550 days in an Egyptian prison learned that his trial in Cairo had been postponed yet again. He was awaiting a mass trial with 493 others on charges that range from murder to attempted murder to preventing people from praying in a mosque. Charges that could lead to his being sentenced to death.
Ibrahim Halawa was just 17 years old when he and his three sisters were arrested as they sought shelter from gunfire and hid in Al Fath mosque on 17 August 2013.
Ibrahim has committed no crime, yet he has languished in prison in Egypt for over 18 months as he waits for what, by any accepted legal standard, will be a sham trial.
His hopes for his release raise when he thinks he might have his day in court, when he is visited by an Irish Embassy official or when he saw his cellmate and friend Al Jazeera journalist Peter Greste released.
And then they are dashed again, and again, and again.
His sister Omaima says of the letters that Ibrahim smuggles to his mother when he can that “it is actually his hope that I find most depressing”. For Omaima and the rest of his family, it is imagining his despair as this hope is dashed that is most difficult.
So, why is this young man in jail in Egypt? What was he doing there in the first place? Why should we care?
He and his sisters were on their annual family holidays in Egypt visiting their relatives when the upheaval that ultimately led to the ousting of then President Morsi began. His sisters witnessed the killing of 817 people at protest camps in Rabaa on 14 August, known as the Rabaa massacre or Egypt’s Tiananmen Square.
They describe people being burned alive, indiscriminate shooting. They tried to help the wounded, saying to soldiers “but they are injured”. Somaia Halawa says, “The soldiers shot the wounded people and just said ‘now they are not injured anymore’”.
The soldiers shot the wounded people and just said ‘now they are not injured anymoreSomaia Halawa
They spent the days after Rabaa getting their sister Fatima seen by a doctor as she had been shot 20 times with rubber bullets. The scars remain visible all over her body. Then on the morning of 17 August they heard that those against the military coup would be assembling again in Ramses Square.
They had to decide what to do. They knew the situation was volatile but were outraged at the conduct of the military. Morsi, whatever we may think of him, was Egypt’s first democratically elected President. They believed a military coup was not acceptable after the Arab Spring, that the democratic process was one they wanted to support.
They rang home to Dublin to tell of their plans to go to Ramses Square and peacefully protest. “My mother was very worried”, Somaia said, “but my Dad said ‘you must do what your humanity asks you to do’”. So they tried to reach Ramses Square.
But they couldn’t. As the security forces again opened fire upon the protestors, they, along with hundreds of others, fled to the Al Fath mosque and tried to barricade themselves in. The security forces later stormed the mosque. The Halawas credit the fact that they are alive today to a live-stream from a journalist in the mosque with them. They couldn’t be killed live on air.
Their screams were broadcast around the world and by the next morning they were in custody and charged with the multiple trumped up offences.
The young women were held for 3 months before being released on bail and returned home to Ireland. They were forced to leave their little brother Ibrahim behind.
The protests the Halawas attended could be characterised as pro-Morsi demonstrations or as they say, they could be more rightly be perceived as pro-democracy protests. From an Amnesty International perspective, this doesn’t matter. Everyone has a right to peaceful protest.
Amnesty International has designated Ibrahim Halawa as a Prisoner of Conscience. Of the tens of thousands of cases highlighted to Amnesty International every year, the ‘Prisoner of Conscience’ designation is very carefully and rarely applied. Amnesty researchers and lawyers must be entirely satisfied that the prisoner in question at no time either advocated or used violence. That they have been imprisoned simply because they peacefully exercised the right to freedom of expression and of assembly.
Amnesty International researchers were on the ground in Cairo during the August protests. Ibrahim, along with many others subject to the same mass trial, is accused of attempted murder and murder. But our researchers witnessed the violence around the Al-Fath mosque where the Halawas were hiding. Any shooting that took place -primarily from the security forces – took place at the minaret entrance to the mosque.
Ibrahim and his sisters were locked in the back sanctuary with no access to the minaret. They were not at the location of the alleged shooting.
The most the unkindest of us could accuse them of, is being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And that is no crime.
Ibrahim was born in the Coombe Hospital; he went to the Holy Rosary primary school in Clonskeagh, then to Rockbrook College and studied for his Leaving Cert in the Institute of Education on Leeson Street. As an Irish citizen, he travelled to Egypt on his Irish passport.
We have learned over the last 18 months that waiting for a trial in Egypt is like waiting for Godot. We know from reports by the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute that Egypt’s judicial system is not one we would accept, where defendants are tried en masse on ‘cut and paste’ charges and where their lawyers, if allowed into court at all, cannot present proper defences. We know that Ibrahim cannot expect justice in Egypt.
When asked if they regretted going to Ramses Square that day his sisters are adamant that despite their ongoing ordeal they do not. They say, “You can’t only choose to be human in one country and ignorant in another”.
There is an Irish young man locked up for crimes he did not commit. The Irish Government must do everything in its power to bring him home.