Alan Shatter calls in Dail Eireann for the release of Ibrahim Halawa

“The retention in jail in Egypt of Irish citizen, Ibrahim Halawa” raised by Alan Shatter TD in Dail Eireann

Extract from Dail transcript of Thursday, 12th February.

Deputy Alan Shatter:  I thank the Ceann Comhairle for granting me permission to raise this issue, which I have been seeking to raise for some time. As Members of the House may know, in August 2013, when Ibrahim Halawa was a 17 year old young man on holidays in Egypt with his sisters, he got caught up in the turmoil and difficulties that were then taking place in that country. Ibrahim Halawa and his sisters engaged in peaceful protest at that time and were ultimately arrested and detained. His sisters have long since been released and are no longer at risk in the context of the circumstances in which they originally found themselves. Ibrahim Halawa, who is now 19 years of age, has been held in prison in Egypt for 18 months. I know the Minister for Foreign Affairs is fully aware of Ibrahim Halawa’s circumstances and has been in contact with the Egyptian authorities about him.

The trial of Ibrahim Halawa has been postponed on four separate occasions. The Irish ambassador and the Irish consular officials have been in regular contact with him. Family visits are allowed. Last year, shortly before I ceased to be Minister for Justice and Equality and following consultation with the then Tánaiste, I attempted to make contact with my counterpart in Egypt, the Egyptian Minister for Justice, on a number of occasions with a view to discussing Ibrahim Halawa’s circumstances. Unfortunately, that did not prove possible and contact was not successfully made. It is normally the approach of this State to stand back and allow the law to take its course in other states with which we have good relations. We try to allow matters to be dealt with before the courts in such countries. We have good relations with Egypt, of course. Egypt is a friend of Ireland and Ireland is a friend of Egypt.

I believe matters have reached a stage where a new initiative is required. The most recent date on which the trial of Ibrahim Halawa was supposed to take place was last week. We know that the trial with which he is confronted is very different from trials in this country. It will be a mass trial with myriad charges brought against Ibrahim Halawa and approximately 490 other individuals. No court system anywhere in the world could ensure the charges brought before it in such circumstances are dealt with in a manner that makes sure each individual before the court gets justice and protects his or her individual human rights.

Ibrahim Halawa is now an Amnesty prisoner of conscience. There are concerns that he has been mistreated during his time in prison. He shared a cell with Peter Greste, the Australian al-Jazeera journalist who was released recently in response to representations made by the Australian Government and on whose behalf the al-Jazeera news network campaigned. I believe this young man, who has now been in jail for 18 months, should be released. Given that the Egyptian authorities have seen fit to release his sisters, who had been held on foot of their involvement in a demonstration, he should not be treated differently.

If it was appropriate to release them, and it was, then it is appropriate to release him.

I am asking the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade to take a new initiative – that is, to request formally of the Egyptian Government and the Egyptian President that Ibrahim be released. New laws introduced in Egypt have facilitated such an approach. It was on the basis of such an approach by the Australian Government that Peter Greste was released. Ibrahim Halawa is a citizen of this State. He is a constituent of mine. His father is a leader of the Muslim community in this city and county of Dublin. I think we should now say to the Egyptian Government that it has friendly relations with Ireland and we have diplomatic relations, so please release this young man and let him return to his life and resume his education in Ireland.

Deputy Charles Flanagan:  I thank Deputy Shatter for raising this important issue and for giving me an opportunity to update the House.

Ibrahim Halawa, an Irish citizen, and his three sisters were detained following incidents at the Al Fateh mosque in Ramses Square in Cairo on 17 August 2013. His sisters were later released, but Ibrahim remains in detention. His case is a matter of concern for me, as I know it is for many people.

From my first day in office, I have taken an active role in progressing matters. During my first week, I spoke to the Egyptian foreign Minister, Mr. Sameh Shoukry, and set out my concerns regarding Ibrahim’s detention. I have spoken with Mr. Shoukry on a number of other occasions, including twice in person in New York and Cairo. I stressed each time that Ibrahim Halawa was only 17 years of age at the time the alleged offences were committed and asked for his release so that he might return to his studies and his family.

Officials in Dublin and Cairo have been in ongoing and sustained contact with the Egyptian authorities, including senior officials from the foreign Ministry, the Ministry of Justice and the Office of the Prosecutor-General. Ibrahim Halawa has received 34 consular visits from Irish Embassy staff, including our ambassador, Ms Isolde Moylan, with approximately one visit every fortnight, most recently on 7 February.

It is the view of the Government that Ibrahim Halawa should not be tried as part of a group trial involving a large number of defendants and on the basis of group charges, but solely on the basis of specific evidence. Our concerns about this case include the Egyptian authorities’ continued consideration of Ibrahim’s case as part of a group trial and the fact that he was only 17 years of age when the alleged offences took place.

Recently, I availed of the opportunity to raise this case directly with the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Ms Federica Mogherini. She undertook to raise the case with the relevant and appropriate authorities, and stressed that we could count on all the assistance that the EU institutions can provide.

I am concerned that, as Deputy Shatter stated, the trial was delayed for the fourth time on 8 February and is now scheduled to take place on 29 March. I have maintained ongoing contact with the Halawa family since August 2013. I met members of the Halawa family earlier today, at which time I discussed the postponement of the hearing and possible next steps. We will continue to work closely with them as we work actively on the case.

The Egyptian President has issued a decree in respect of foreign nationals in Egypt who have been sentenced or are awaiting trial. I am aware of the recent deportation from Egypt of the Australian al-Jazeera journalist, Mr. Peter Greste. However, there are few, if any, details available as to the exact scope and practical operation of the presidential decree. In particular, it remains unclear exactly what the decree may mean in practice for those whom Egypt regards as dual or Egyptian nationals, as is the case for Ibrahim. Officials in my Department remain in ongoing contact with Ibrahim’s lawyer regarding this issue and continue to highlight his Irish citizenship and seek further information from the Egyptian authorities about the practical operation of the new decree. I am also aware that the other al-Jazeera journalists have been granted bail today pending their retrial later in the month. My officials are closely monitoring all developments and will remain in sustained contact with the authorities in Cairo.

This is a difficult case in a complex and challenging context. While Ireland cannot interfere with the judicial process in Egypt, our concern at the continued and lengthy period of detention has been raised with the Egyptian authorities in a clear and sustained manner, as has the critical importance of due process in this case. Ireland will continue to seek a review of the case. We will continue to seek Ibrahim’s release and his return to his studies and his family. In the meantime, we will offer all possible consular assistance to Ibrahim and his family.

Deputy Alan Shatter:  I would like to thank the Minister for his very detailed response. I know that, during my time in government, initially the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade was very anxious that matters be dealt with by its officials in Egypt, by the ambassador and, indeed, through that Department. The approach – which is the usual approach – was to provide all the consular assistance and advice possible on the assumption that matters would come before the courts within a reasonable period of time and there would be adequate human rights protections. I want to say to the Minister that I particularly welcome his comment that he is actively seeking the release of Ibrahim.

My understanding of the new legal provisions that are now in place in Egypt is that it is indeed possible that the President could decide to facilitate his release. He was in prison, sharing a cell, effectively, with Peter Greste, the journalist who has now been released and returned to Australia. This is a young man to whom great damage may be done by his continued incarceration. Not only will he experience the trauma of finding himself in these circumstances and the impact on his education, but he will need time to recover from the experiences that he has been through. It is of huge importance that we emphasise the urgency of this.

The one issue that I have concerns about – I know the Minister understands this and has mentioned it – is the concept of due process. There can be no due process in any trial in which an individual is prosecuted on a myriad of charges which are levelled against more than 490 other individuals and in which those against whom charges are brought are brought to prison and held in an enormous cage where it is difficult even to hear what is happening in the court, with no realistic capacity for lawyers to represent them individually.

This is a human rights issue. This is an Irish citizen. We are entitled to say to the Egyptian Government that this is not an appropriate way to proceed in its courts in dealing with an Irish citizen and that, in the interests of good relations between Ireland and Egypt, it should release this young man and allow him return home.

Deputy Charles Flanagan:  The Deputy will be aware that it is not within our power or authority to interfere unduly in a criminal matter in a foreign jurisdiction. That notwithstanding, I have outlined the steps that the Irish Government has taken and will continue to take in order to secure a positive outcome. This difficult and challenging case has consumed the attention of many of our officials for many months. I have twice met the Egyptian foreign Minister and had telephone contact a number of other times. I ask people to accept that Ireland is unable to interfere in the judicial process of another country, but we will continue raising our concerns.

This morning, I had a positive and constructive meeting with members of the family, during which I outlined the steps that we had taken to progress the matter. I can confirm to the House that those talks were held in a practical and open spirit in furtherance of our shared objective of seeking a positive outcome to the case. I will continue using every avenue available, including the recent presidential decree. In that regard, we are engaging in the legal and technical process in order to allow for the decree to operate in a way that will help in this case.

I again thank the Deputy for raising this issue. He has raised it with me over a number of months in correspondence. I will continue to keep both him and the House updated on all appropriate occasions as necessary.

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