A delegation of eight Irish parliamentarians departed from Egypt on Friday evening, following a five-day visit in which they met with senior state leaders – including President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and parliamentary speaker Ali Abdel Aal, among others – in hopes of securing the release of Irish-Egyptian political detainee Ibrahim Halawa.
The delegation was also able to meet with the 21-year-old Halawa himself, who has been imprisoned for the past three and half years in Egypt while he awaits trial.
Giving Mada Masr an account of what took place in the closed-door meetings is Irish lawmaker Paul Murphy, who is a member of the Anti-Austerity Alliance and Ireland’s Socialist Party. Murphy also hails from the same constituency as Halawa’s family, Firhouse, a southern suburb of the Irish capital Dublin.
Murphy explains that the cross-party Irish delegation, in which he was a representative, was able to meet with Halawa at Wadi al-Natrun Prison on Tuesday.
The parliamentarian, or TD (Teachta Dála), as they are known in Ireland, tells Mada Masr, “Physically, he looked okay. He said he was very happy to see us and to know that there is a lot campaigning and solidarity for him.”
According to Murphy, Halawa’s extended detention – he has been in jail since he was 17-years-old – has had a clear physical and psychological toll on him. Halawa has recently started his third hunger strike since he was incarcerated in 2013.
“He had fainted on Monday due to low glucose levels,” Murphy says. Fearing for his life and well-being, all eight TDs called on Halawa to call off his hunger strike. “He said he would consider it.”
Halawa has reported being repeatedly beaten and abused by police personnel in prison.
“He’s desperate to leave,” Murphy says, adding that Halawa “wanted to come to Ireland with us on Friday.”
But this seemed impossible, as the Irish-Egyptian’s trial — which includes nearly 500 other defendants — has been postponed 17 times.
Halawa and his three sisters — Somaia, Fatima and Omaima — were arrested in Cairo on August 17, 2013, on charges of participating in a violent protest at Al-Fath Mosque in Cairo’s Ramses neighborhood, in the wake of large demonstrations protesting the military-backed ouster of former Islamist President Mohamed Morsi. His sisters were released shortly thereafter, but Halawa was remanded in custody. Along with 493 other defendants, including another 11 minors, he faces charges ranging from protesting illegally and destroying public property to attacking security forces and committing murder. The charges against him may carry the death penalty.
On the Facebook group Free Ibrahim Halawa, his lawyer and family have denied all these accusations, as well as any link between Halawa and the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.
The following day after the prison visit, the delegation met with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo at the Ettehadiya Presidential Palace, where they discussed the case.
Ireland’s Parliament previously issued a motion in July 2016 calling on Egyptian authorities to release Halawa. However, Egyptian PMs subsequently denounced the Irish parliamentary vote, referring to it as an intervention in the affairs of Egypt and its judiciary.
However, in the meeting with Sisi on Wednesday, Murphy comments that it was the president who started the conversation about Halawa.
Murphy says that Sisi claimed that “if he had the power to, he would free Ibrahim,” adding that “he would do it in a second.”
The Irish TD explained that Sisi “emphasized the independence of the judiciary in Egypt,” saying that Halawa “must first be convicted by court, before he could do anything about it,” in reference to issuing him a presidential pardon.
Murphy points out that this statement “was a repetition of what he has said to our prime minister in the past: If I could, I would.”
Sisi “spoke of his presidential pardons and amnesty for youth detainees,” says Murphy, adding that the president pointed to the committee he had established to review lists of political detainees for potential release.
Murphy says that there is the possibility of a scenario similar to that of Australian journalist Peter Greste, who was deported from Egypt in 2015, in light of Presidential Decree 140/2014 — a law that allows for the deportation of foreign nationals at any point during their prosecution or detention upon the request of their native countries.
Halawa “never had an Egyptian passport, and was born in Ireland,” Murphy explains, a fact which may potentially facilitate his deportation from Egypt upon Ireland’s request. Murphy adds that Halawa “recently signed a waiver form giving up his Egyptian citizenship, which may indicate that he could be deported.”
The Irish TD also spoke of his meeting with parliamentary speaker Ali Abdel Aal, “who emphasized that he would do everything that he could to have him released, adding that he would seek to expedite the judicial process” for Halawa’s trial.
According to Ireland’s state-owned RTÉ news service, the Egyptian government had invited the parliamentary delegation for the visit, “as it wants to normalize relations with Ireland.”
RTÉ reported that the Irish delegation was invited to “discuss parliamentary relations” and to “build stronger cooperation in areas such as agriculture, trade, and tourism.”
When asked if he thinks that this is a good time – in terms of the Egyptian government’s track record on democracy and human rights – to be normalizing relations with Egypt, Murphy replies, “Ibrahim’s case is just one of many issues of violations here. We have a duty to raise issues of human rights and democracy, along with the new NGO law, among others. We will be raising the issue of these violations with our counterparts in Egypt.”
In terms of other issues discussed, Murphy says that the Irish delegation communicated with Egypt’s Minister of Agriculture, “to follow up on the level of the food safety cooperation between both countries,” and the strengthening of bilateral trade links.
Murphy adds that the delegation also met with the heads of Egypt’s different parliamentary committees and agreed to establish cordial ties among Irish and Egyptian MPs in the future.
“We had been engaging in soft-diplomacy until now,” he says. “We hope that our visit will have some positive effect,” noting that the case is closely monitored in Ireland, thanks in large part to the campaign efforts of Halawa’s sisters.
International rights organizations Amnesty International and Reprieve have called for the release of Halawa, along with the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, the European Parliament, and the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
According to investigations conducted by Amnesty International, Halawa is “a prisoner of conscience, imprisoned solely for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression and assembly.”