ILN’s Kevin Burns gains an insight into the Halawa case from solicitor Darragh Mackin.
Ibrahim Halawa’s nightmare at the hands of the Egyptian authorities is coming to a conclusion. Foreign Minister Simon Coveney has confirmed the 21-year-old Irishman will return home to Firhouse in the next few days after a tortuous four-year ordeal. His incarceration will be remembered as a shameful episode which outraged the nation and strained Irish-Egyptian relations.
On 16 August 2013, when he was just 17, Ibrahim was arrested along with 493 others who had sought refuge in the al-Fateh mosque in central Cairo after Egyptian troops, police and pro-coup paramilitaries attacked a protest camp in Ramses Square. Nearly a hundred protesters were murdered by pro-coup forces in the vicinity of the square that day. Ibrahim himself sustained injuries in his hand from a gunshot during the violence.
The demonstration was part of the Day of Rage, a nationwide day of protest called by the Muslim Brotherhood in response to the Rabaa Square massacre two days earlier, where hundreds of protesters — 817, according to Human Rights Watch — were murdered by the armed forces as they attempted to oppose the military coup.
Ibrahim was on holiday with three of his sisters when the protests broke out. The government of Mohamed Morsi, the first democratically elected president of Egypt in a generation, was overthrown by a military-backed coup following Morsi’s attempt to push through a new Egyptian constitution.
What followed was a four-year detention and a farcical trial that defied many basic principles of criminal justice.
Fears for life and safety
At the time of Ibrahim’s arrest, similar mass arrests had been made around the country as protesters clashed with the nascent military regime. There was genuine cause to fear for Ibrahim’s life. He and his 493 co-defendants were charged with attempted murder, a charge that carries the death sentence.
In a similar trial in March 2014, the Minya District Court handed down a death sentence to 529 defendants, sparking international outrage as human rights organisations warned that the Egyptian legal system had abandoned basic principles of justice.
Not only was the death penalty a distinct possibility for Ibrahim, but his physical safety during imprisonment was also a major concern. Conditions in Egyptian jails deteriorated rapidly as the system struggled to cope with the influx of political prisoners. Despite being a juvenile at his arrest, Ibrahim was held with adult men at the notoriously violent Tora, al-Marg, and Wadi el-Natrun prisons.
It was not, however, fellow prisoners that caused the most concern for Ibrahim’s safety. Beatings from prison guards were commonplace. In August 2014, the Halawa family told the Irish press that their son had been stripped naked and flogged with a metal chain. Peter Greste, an Australian journalist who shared a cell with Ibrahim, corroborated the allegations of torture and brutality.
After the incident, Ibrahim embarked upon a hunger strike in an attempt to secure his immediate release, which he broke only upon the request of then-Taoiseach Enda Kenny, having been assured the Irish government would do everything in its power to secure his release. The strike did, however, lead to a further deterioration in his health, leading to fresh concerns for the teenager’s wellbeing.
The mass trial would not begin until March 2015, having been postponed five times by the prosecution.
Prominent human rights lawyer Darragh Mackin of Belfast firm KRW Law LLP was enlisted to act as Ibrahim’s solicitor in Ireland. The Newry man has made waves on the Irish legal scene in previous years, having successfully represented the “Hooded Men” at the European Court of Human Rights. Mr Mackin told Irish Legal News of the absurdity of the mass trial.
“The scene outside the courthouse was like something out of a gangster movie. It was guarded by un-uniformed ‘guards’ who had absolute control over who could enter the courthouse […] they looked like something out of Narcos [a popular Netflix series about the Colombian drug war].
“The trial had so many defendants that many of them went totally unrepresented. Several hundred defendants had to sit together behind a Perspex window, which would steam up with condensation over the course of a sitting. They had to pour water over the Perspex in order to view the proceedings […] The defendants could not hear the proceedings due to the overcrowding, and so had to take turns pressing up against the Perspex in order to listen to what was being said.”
Mr Mackin continued to roundly criticise the legalities of the prosecution’s case: “It was taking the concept of joint enterprise to an extreme; eleven defendants were charged with leading [the protests], while the remaining 483 were lumped in via joint enterprise simply for being present.”
The evidence at the trial was almost entirely based on statements of a few police officers who had been at Ramses Square, and none of it related to specific defendants. One officer gave evidence against every single person on trial, and yet, according to Mr Mackin, was unable to remember basic details of his statement during cross-examination.
“Extremely unpredictable trial”
Mr Mackin highlighted the erratic judgments issued by the court which seemed to distinguish between defendants at random, rather than in accordance to evidence or precedent. Mr Mackin also gave counsel to one of Ibrahim’s co-defendants, Ahmed Etiwi, who is an American citizen. Mr Etiwi was arrested along with his two uncles, who are both Egyptian citizens.
Despite facing the same charges, and without any specific evidence being presented against any of the three men, the court issued Mr Etiwi a five-year sentence, and gave his uncles ten years each. No explanation was given for the reasoning behind the different sentences.
“It was an extremely unpredictable trial,” said Mr Mackin, adding that the Egyptian justice system had given prosecutors “free rein” to act “with impunity”.
On one such occasion, proceedings was postponed pending the attendance of two defendants in the courtroom. It was later revealed that the defendants had died while waiting for the trial.
The trial was delayed a total of 28 times before Ibrahim’s counsel could even present his case – five delays before it started, and a further 23 during the process. The prosecution repeatedly attempted to stall proceedings, claiming they had not had enough time to prepare a case and collect evidence. The prosecution frequently refused to proceed until all defendants were present in the courtroom. On one such occasion, proceedings was postponed pending the attendance of two defendants in the courtroom. It was later revealed that the defendants had died while waiting for the trial.
In addition, the trial was seriously delayed by a requirement in Egyptian law that judges be rotated every two years. This meant that there were two such rotations during Ibrahim’s trial. This effectively re-set the trial, as new judges needed time to read the case materials and be briefed on previous proceedings.
A long overdue acquittal
On Monday 18 September, Ibrahim was finally acquitted of all charges. There is little doubt that the pressure placed on the Egyptian authorities by the Irish government played a part in this verdict; a factor that may also account for the more lenient sentencing of his American co-defendant Mr Etiwi.
Nonetheless, there is a perception that the Irish government had not pressed for Ibrahim’s release as forcefully as it could have.
In a letter to The Irish Times, Lynn Boylan MEP pointed out the existence of Egyptian rule 140, whereby a foreign prisoner can be returned to his or her jurisdiction of origin to face trial. This is the mechanism by which the Egyptian regime released journalist Peter Greste after 13 months due to intense public pressure from the Australian government. Boylan accused the Irish government of sticking too rigidly to “quiet diplomacy”, citing the hardline stance of the Australian government as the primary reason that their citizen was released before Ibrahim.
Indeed, last July members of the Dáil expressed their frustration with the slow process made on the Halawa case, passing an all-party motion which said the Government should consider severing diplomatic relations with Egypt if it did not release Ibrahim. It further called for the Egyptian ambassador, Soha Gendhi, to be summoned before the Oireachtas to answer questions on Ibrahim’s continued detention.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar spoke directly to Egyptian dictator General Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi last month to express Irish frustration at the Halawa case. The autocrat refused to intervene directly in the court proceedings as per rule 140, insisting the “due process” of the Egyptian courts be respected. Whether due process is still being observed by the post-coup Egyptian legal system is doubtful, with Amnesty International calling on the EU to withdraw its statement of confidence in Egypt’s judiciary.
The debate as to whether the Irish government could have done more to secure an early release provides little comfort to Ibrahim and the Halawa family. The young man has spent his early adulthood incarcerated far from home for a crime he did not commit, and has lost over four years of his young life to the capricious legal system of a despotic government.