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Dublin: 15 °C Wednesday 26 June, 2019
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'We left Ibrahim with a promise we would do everything to bring him home'

Paul Murphy was one of eight TDs who visited Ibrahim Halawa in Egypt during the week.

Paul Murphy

“I WANT TO go home.” That was Ibrahim Halawa’s first message to the delegation of eight TDs which met with him on Tuesday in Wadi el-Natrun prison in Egypt.

We had come to visit this 21-year-old Irish citizen, on the back of a public campaign spearheaded by his tirelessly campaigning sisters and a Dáil motion calling for his release. He is the son of Egyptian parents and a victim of severe attacks on democratic and human rights in Egypt.

He was 17 when he visited Egypt and participated in a protest along with his sisters against the removal of President Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood (also no friend of democratic or human rights), who had replaced the dictator Hosni Mubarak.

The new military regime was engaged in a brutal crackdown, which saw up to 1,000 people killed in one night, has seen many thousands ‘disappeared’ and has resulted in prisons overflowing with activists, journalists and those like Ibrahim, who were unlucky enough to be caught up in it.

They sheltered from attack in a mosque and when they were taken out they were arrested. Ibrahim told us in the prison that when the police originally arrested him, they said they just needed to hold him for five minutes to check he had no previous criminal convictions. Over three years later, he is still languishing in prison, with no verdict or sentence, and with a seemingly interminable court process, which has now seen 17 adjournments.

Hunger strikes 

Meeting Ibrahim in prison was an experience that will not easily leave me. Dressed in white prison clothes, with his freshly cut hair (he explained that this was for our benefit on behalf of the prison authorities), he made a striking impression. He is, in person, the same articulate, brave, smart, young person that comes across in his letters.

He told us about his conditions, which were far from the picture painted for us by the ‘general manager’ of the prison. It is a maximum security prison, with 10 people crowded into his cell, with their feet touching and no space to move while sleeping. They sleep centimetres off the hard ground, on tiny mattresses.

ibrahim-halawa-6-390x285-390x285 Ibrahim Halawa Source: Amnesty International

There is one toilet per cell and no privacy. In a previous prison, he said he was beaten with an iron bar and cut with metal chains by prison guards. He was also punished for refusing visits previously, by being put in a tiny cell two metres long and 80cm wide.

While Ibrahim’s resilience is extremely impressive, it is also clear that over three years in prison inevitably takes its toll. He is desperate to be home and with each court appearance (which are mass trials with 493 other defendants), which comes and goes with no verdict, he loses hope that he will ever be free.

This desperation has now resulted in him resorting to hunger strike on a number of occasions and when we visited he was refusing food, which resulted in him fainting the day before. He was encouraged by TDs to eat again, to regain his strength and to look after his own health.

Meeting with the president 

We left Ibrahim with a promise that we would do everything we could to fulfil his wish to come home. The next day, we met with President el-Sisi in the Mubarak-era Presidential Palace to convey this message. The contrast with the conditions of the prison couldn’t be starker. High ceilings, ornate furniture and grand paintings made the point that this was a place of power. Wide doors swung open inside the building to reveal the president sitting in front of a massive tapestry of Egypt.

El-Sisi said that due process has to be followed and that he has no power to intervene in advance of the conclusion of the court process. However, he said that at the end of that process he will have the power to pardon Ibrahim and will exercise it immediately. With no clear finish line for that court process, this was essentially a restatement of the position he has previously given to the Taoiseach.

This idea, of a separation of powers between the executive and judiciary and his inability to intervene in a case before it has concluded in the courts is the central argumentation we heard in all our meetings, including with Egyptian MPs.

When I put to the president that, under Egyptian Law 140, we understood the President may intervene in advance of the conclusion of a case to transfer a defendant to their home country where “the higher interest of the state so requires”, he simply didn’t answer.

We left Cairo without Ibrahim, unfortunately. Our interventions with the Egyptian authorities at every one of the meetings will have left them in no doubt that Ibrahim’s release, not beef, trade or tourism, is the central issue.

All eyes will be on Ibrahim’s scheduled court appearance next Tuesday. If, as seems likely, it is adjourned once more, we will have to use the impact of our visit and the increased awareness that has been created to build an even more effective campaign of pressure on the Egyptian authorities for his immediate release and return home.

Paul Murphy is an Anti-Austerity Alliance TD for Dublin South West.

Read: Egyptian President refuses to release Ibrahim Halawa but says he can return to Ireland after his trial

Read: Ibrahim Halawa set for court tomorrow – his 21st birthday

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