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Leah Farrell/Photocall Ireland

Visiting Ibrahim Halawa in prison, I saw the devastating impact of his incarceration

Sinn Féin MEP Lynn Boylan describes her visit to the Egyptian prison in which the 19-year-old Dubliner is currently being held without trial.

WHEN I FIRST met Somaia Halawa outside Leinster House in April 2014, she was holding a simple black and white flyer, trying to draw attention to her brother’s plight. It was the first time I had heard of Ibrahim, who has been detained without trial in Egypt for two years now.

In July 2013, he had travelled along with his family to Egypt, as they do every year to visit friends and relatives. The following month, he was arrested while taking shelter during a Cairo demonstration against the military overthrow of Egypt’s first ever democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi.

Despite Amnesty finding absolutely no evidence to support the charges against him, he faces the death penalty. The fact that he was a juvenile at the time holds no sway with the military regime that is now in place in Egypt.

Joker of the family

I have come to know the Halawa family over the last year as they tirelessly campaign for their brother’s release – in the face of the vilest Islamophobic abuse on social media.

They talk about their young brother as the joker of the family, a sentiment echoed by his biology teacher.  His primary school principal fondly remembers the young GAA-playing Ibrahim.

Growing frustrated with the lack of urgency from the Irish government, I travelled out to Cairo earlier this month to make representations to the EU delegation there. But I also wanted to witness first-hand how Eyptian trials are conducted.

On the day of Ibrahim’s trial, I travelled to Wadi Al Natroon prison, where he’s being held, along with his sister Khadija and Darragh Mackin, his Irish lawyer. We stood outside the court where he was to be tried, which forms part of the jail, waiting to hear back from the lawyers inside.

It was to be another day of disappointment, with the trial being postponed for a 10th time. As in all the other mass trials he has been put through, Ibrahim could not testify or hear the evidence presented against him and the hundreds of other accused.

Darragh Mackin, Khadija Halawa and Lynn Boylan

No physical contact

The next day was Khadija’s day to visit Ibrahim.  Every week, a family member can apply for a permit to visit their loved one for up to three minutes.  No physical contact is permitted during these visits, however, as they take place behind a barrier. At no point are you guaranteed to see your loved one either, as any one of the officials can decide to stop you.

We were lucky that day to be brought to the governor’s office, presumably because I’m an MEP.  We sat there for an hour as we waited for Ibrahim to be brought up from his cell, a five by four metre cell that he shares with nine other prisoners.

When he entered the room, his sister rushed to him and they hugged for a very long time.  It was heartbreaking to watch.  He has had no physical contact with any family member for over a year and clung tightly to his sister’s hand throughout the hour-long visit.

Beaten and tortured

Ibrahim described the conditions he was living in – the lack of showering facilities and the regularly blocked toilet, a hole in the ground.  There is no yard exercise and, other than his visits, he spends 24 hours a day in his cell, in the stifling heat.

Visibly upset, he detailed how he wakes every morning to the sounds of prisoners’ screams as they are beaten and tortured, describing how rubber poles are used to hit you on the back and behind the legs. Other prisoners have received worse treatment, he said, convinced that the public campaign is keeping him safe.

11351153_474324202723462_7329715142392912554_n Free Ibrahim Halawa / Facebook Free Ibrahim Halawa / Facebook / Facebook

His mood visibly lifted as the meeting progressed and a glimmer of the “joker” Ibrahim reappeared when he jeered his sister about her shoes.  There were tears and smiles as she told him to stop – a normal sibling interaction in a very abnormal setting.

Knowing that the visit would help Ibrahim’s morale in such harsh conditions was comforting, but leaving that prison I couldn’t help but feel concerned about his mental and physical wellbeing. He struggled for breath throughout our visit.

Ibrahim needs to go home now. At the very least, he should be released on bail. That’s a call the Irish government should be putting directly to President al-Sisi, because the current strategy isn’t working.

Lynn Boylan is a Sinn Féin MEP. 

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