softly softly

Ireland is not stepping on Egypt's toes in bid to free Halawa

Huge consular efforts have supported the Irish student but confrontation with the Egyptian government has been minimised.

BACK IN FEBRUARY of last year Peter Greste stood on a beach in Cyprus, feeling the sun on his face and the water at his feet.

The Al Jazeera journalist was enjoying his first taste of freedom on the Mediterranean island after having spent more than 400 days in an Egyptian jail. 

From the time Greste was first arrested to when he was released, Irish student and native of Dublin’s Firhouse Ibrahim Halawa was also in jail in the country.

There was a marked difference in the men’s cases, however, as the Irish and Australian governments took vastly disparate approaches in order to have their citizens freed.

‘A softly softly approach’ 

One thing should be clear: the Irish government has put a great deal of effort into getting Halawa out of jail.

As of December 2015, Halawa had received 48 consular visits – another more recent one took place on 17 April this year – and representatives from the Irish Embassy in Cairo have been present at every one of his court hearings.

“Where the campaign would disagree with the government is the approach taken,” Lynn Boylan, the Sinn Féin MEP who has been a central figure in the fight to have him freed, explains.

30/11/2015 Free Ibrahim Halawa Protests Lynn Boylan pictured with Somaia Halawa in November last year Leah Farrell / Leah Farrell / /

She visited him in Wadi El-Natrun prison in August 2015.

[To this point] it has been a softly softly approach and I suppose when you’re coming up to a third anniversary – at what point do you question if your approach is working?

Ireland’s government has been careful to avoid public condemnation of the Egyptian prison system.

Responding to a parliamentary question last month, Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan said that it was his department’s “clear determination to see this citizen released at the earliest possible opportunity so that he can return to Ireland and resume his school studies” – but tempered this by saying:

Egyptian authorities, for their part, see this individual as an Egyptian citizen, according to their laws.
As well as this:
We are satisfied that access to his legal representation is not being impeded and the citizen receives regular visits from family members.

Anglo-Irish Agreement anniversary Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan Niall Carson / PA Wire Niall Carson / PA Wire / PA Wire

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Australia was less concerned about stepping on toes in its efforts to free Greste.

From the time of Greste’s arrest, Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop began a “very concerted campaign of advocacy“.

This involved constant representations to the Egyptian government by Australian officials in Cairo, a high-profile media campaign and Bishop staying in regular contact with her Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukry and his predecessor Nabil Fahmi. 

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott raised the matter in a side meeting at the United Nations in September 2014, and – although speaking about el-Sisi in flattering terms – publicly made statements in support of Greste, saying:

I think he understands that this would be a PR coup for the new government if Peter Greste is not dealt with severely.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s interventions have been more low key.

Documents released to reveal that since the start of 2015 Enda Kenny has personally written to president el-Sisi twice about Halawa’s plight, and received one letter back from the Egyptian head of state.

These documents also show 22 official pieces of correspondence between the Department of Foreign Affairs and Egyptian officials.

United Nations Summit Egypt Interview Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi AP Photo / Julie Jacobson AP Photo / Julie Jacobson / Julie Jacobson

Enda Kenny has also spoken to President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi personally about the case at the UN Millennium Development Goals meetings in Paris and New York.

Still, when it comes to hitting out publicly at the Egyptian legal system and conditions the UN recently described as “deplorable”, the Irish government has been reticent.

Halawa’s Irish-based solicitor Darragh Mackin told “The Irish government’s approach tactically had been that quiet diplomacy would work better than any all out attack on the legal system of Egypt.”

Would a firmer approach had made a difference? 

In November of 2014 the eyes of the world focused on Egypt and its new government’s treatment of foreign prisoners.

To respond to this, el-Sisi introduced a new decree that allowed non-Egyptian citizens to serve the duration of their sentences in their own countries – opening up a loophole that allowed him to avoid an embarrassing climbdown.

The decree – known as Law 140 – remains Halawa’s best chance at freedom.

Although calling for stronger representations to be made by the Irish government in advance of Halawa standing trial again at the end of March, Mackin acknowledged that a more delicate approach has its merits.

30/11/2015 Free Ibrahim Halawa Protests Leah Farrell Leah Farrell

“Only time will tell in respect of the difference of approaches whether it will work, and how it differs from the approach of the Australian government,” he said.

The Australian government had a very hard and fast approach and were very critical of the Egyptian legal system.

The now-defunct coalition kept its cards close to its chest in terms of how hard it was willing to push the Egyptians in private.

While Kenny has made himself part of the backroom team to free Halawa – he is yet to speak out publicly on the issue.

It is also difficult to clearly interpret some of the Department of Foreign Affairs statements on the case. Asked for this article if it had taken an aggressive enough approach in dealing with it, a spokesperson said:

The government will remain resolute in pursuing its clear objectives in this case and what we firmly believe to be in this citizen’s best interests and to be most likely to contribute to a positive outcome for him…
… the Egyptian government is in no doubt about the Irish government’s position and our desire to see Ibrahim released as soon as possible.

1,000 days behind bars 

A number of important benchmarks are on the horizon in the case.

The 13th of this month will mark his 1,000th day behind bars. Then on 29 June – along with 393 other defendants – he will stand trial for terrorism-related charges.

The Department of Foreign Affairs has said that it received assurances from the Egyptian government that the death penalty will not be applied.

But Halawa’s legal team (and the United Nations) remain unconvinced. 

Last week, a letter was sent to the Egyptian government by the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights. Seen by, it levels claims that Halawa was shot in the hand and did not receive appropriate treatment.

It also says he is being held in a cell with 40 other men in a space designed for just 10 people.

united nations A letter sent to the Egyptian government by the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights

This focus from the UN is a fresh development and although the Egyptian ambassador in Ireland said that torture allegations were “all false… all lies” – the intervention adds hefty weight to the accusations.

“We believe that this case – given the seriousness of it – deserves discussions at a very high level,” said Mackin.

We would call on Enda Kenny to take direct action with the president of Egypt in trying to secure Ibrahim’s release… We would say that the UN position in respect of the submission that we have lodged effectively strengthens his hand in negotiations.
Peter Greste has now had 455 days of freedom. In that time, Ibrahim Halawa’s trial has been adjourned 10 more times. The Dubliner also left his teenage years behind in an Egyptian prison. He turned 20 on 13 December 2015.

Read: Egypt government rejects UN mistreatment claim in Halawa case

Also: ‘All false, all lies’: Egyptian ambassador denies Ibrahim Halawa is being beaten in jail

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