An Irish citizen has been held without trial for 620 days – how can we look the other way?

Would we care more if his name was, say, Sean Murphy and not Ibrahim Halawa?

“MAMMA, COME AND save me,” screams the Dublin teenager on the recorded telephone message. “They’re killing me, they’re torturing me.”

Imagine a 19-year-old Irish citizen – for the sake of stereotype let’s say he’s a pale, foxy-haired Irish young fella by the name of Sean Murphy from Firhouse – being held in a Cairo prison for nineteen months. One of our own.

Sean’s treatment has been roundly condemned as a human rights abuse and Sean’s family alleges he has been tortured. Imprisoned without trial for – as of today – 620 days and subjected to multiple hearing delays. There was concern of late that Sean was possibly being held in a ‘Death Penalty Cell’ in the notorious Egyptian prison to which he was transferred recently. Yes, if convicted, Sean faces a possible death penalty.

His crime was to attend an anti-government, pro-democracy rally.

Partaking in a protest hardly merits his death

This is, to be honest, a pretty fantastical scenario. It seems highly unlikely that we would tolerate the caging without trial of a young Irish citizen for such a length of time. Even those of us who would say he had no business getting involved in a political protest in a land not of his birth, would probably concede that Sean would hardly be the first Irish person to do something ill-advised in their youth – either at home or overseas – and that partaking in a pro-democracy protest hardly merits his death.

It’s unlikely we would have let things reach the point where we would need to picket the Egyptian embassy, but had we need to, we’d probably all be outside 12 Cyde Road in Ballsbridge, with our placards calling for Sean’s release, to musical accompaniment by the likes of Damien Dempsey or Glenn Hansard.

Chances are, though, our Government would have long-since stepped meaningfully in and Sean would be on his way home to his loving (if hypothetical) family, who – because they’re stereotypically Irish too  – are all pale of face and red of hair. Sean’s tearful Mam might tell Miriam O’Callaghan that she will never – to her dying day – hear a bad word against Enda Kenny, the Taoiseach who picked up the phone and asked President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi for a personal favour. The man who saved Sean’s life.

You know where I’m going with this. “Sean” isn’t actually a thought experiment. “Sean” is a real Irish citizen but his name isn’t Sean. He’s not pale or red-haired either. He is, however, 19 years old and he’s in very serious trouble. He has suffered terrible abuse. He could well be put to death. The question is, though, do we care?

The Halawa siblings were arrested

Ibrahim Halawa was born in the Coombe. He plays GAA and speaks Irish. He lived in Ireland all his life. He was 17 and studying for his Leaving Cert in 2013 when he went to Egypt for the summer with his family. As an Irish citizen who does not hold dual-nationality, Ibrahim had to pay for a visa to enter Egypt.

While there, he and his sisters became involved in a protest against the ousting of Egypt’s democratically-elected president, Mohamed Morsi. When security forces opened fire, Ibrahim and his sisters sought sanctuary in the Al Fath mosque.

Egyptian authorities claim that they were shot at by protesters who sought sanctuary in the mosque. Amnesty International, which had observers on the ground, says this claim is
unfounded. Security forces further claim they were shot at from the minaret of the Al Fath mosque. When Imbrahim and his sisters were arrested, they were found locked into the inner sanctum of Al Fath – an impossible distance, under hostile gunfire, from the minaret.

The security forces stormed the mosque and during that assault Ibrahim was shot in the hand. In the 21 months since, his only treatment was given to him by a cellmate, by chance a doctor. Imagine – if you can – a wound of that magnitude left without proper attention for nearly two years.

“A cut-and-paste charge”

Ibrahim’s sisters were granted bail – it seems because they are women – and they were allowed to leave Egypt. They say Ibrahim was stripped naked and beaten with chains before being charged – along with 494 other men – with murder, attempted murder and illegal protest. Murder and attempted murder are crimes punishable by execution under Egyptian law.

Amnesty International’s Colm O’Gorman dismisses these charges as “a cut-and-paste charge applied to hundreds of other people. He is being detained purely for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.”

Despite the fact that Ibrahim has never asserted Egyptian nationality, Egypt says he is an Egyptian national – because his parents are Egyptian. Egypt certainly didn’t view him as an Egyptian national when they made him buy a visa – as an Irish national – to enter Egypt on every occasion he has visited the country. (Racists on the internet say Ibrahim tore up his Irish passport. Not so, according to Amnesty International. It was confiscated when he was arrested. Not, of course, that facts usually impede racists on the internet.)

The Department of Foreign Affairs says it is doing all it can, a claim which Amnesty International says it accepts. In recent months, Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott successfully lobbied President el-Sisi to release their citizens. Where is our prime minister? A spokesperson for the Taoiseach says he is “across the situation”. Whatever that means.

Is our problem with Ibrahim Halawa that he’s not Sean Murphy?

I mentioned Sean Murphy’s mam. She has the luxury of being a fictional character. Whenever Ibrahim’s mama gets to visit her son, she queues for hours in the 40 degree heat outside the dreaded Wadi al Natrun prison. Because Ibrahim would otherwise go hungry, she brings with her whatever food she thinks won’t spoil in the heat. Before he ended up in prison, Ibrahim – like many an Irish young fella – hadn’t a clue how to cook. Taught by a cellmate, Ibrahim now swears that if he gets out, he’ll cook his mama the finest meal she’s ever had.

An Irish citizen has been held without trial for 620 days – and counting – on what objective human rights professionals call trumped-up charges. He has been subjected to multiple trial delays and – allegedly – torture. He could very well be executed for the heinous crime of protesting for democracy.

Why are we not picketing the Egyptian embassy?

Is our problem with Ibrahim Halawa that he’s not Sean Murphy? That he isn’t pale and red-haired? That he doesn’t fit our idea of an Irish citizen? Is Ibrahim too “foreign” to consider Irish? Too Muslim? Too brown?

An Irish citizen is in trouble. One of our own. We need to start caring and caring now. We need to pick up the phone and ask our TDs to make noise. We need our Taoiseach to pick up the phone and ask President el-Sisi for a personal favour.

We need, all of us, to try and save a young Irishman’s life.

Donal O’Keeffe is a writer, artist and columnist for He tweets as @Donal_OKeeffe.

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