Somaia Halawa discusses the turbulent Egyptian summer of 2013 which led to her brother Ibrahim’s unjust imprisonment – and the family’s subsequent efforts to secure his release.
Ibrahim Halawa was just 17 in 2013, when a violent coup, led by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi against Egypt’s democratically elected president, Mohammad Morsi, triggered the collapse of the latter’s government and the installation of a military dictatorship.
An Irish citizen, Ibrahim had just finished his Leaving Cert at the time. Full of hope – and the once in a lifetime feeling of expectation which school leavers experience – Ibrahim travelled to Egypt with his sisters to visit relatives.
They went without any political purpose whatsoever in mind. But a series of events, propelled by the coup, led to their being arrested and detained in an Egyptian prison.
Morsi’s presidency had been controversial, including the introduction of an Egyptian constitution. This was suspended, following the coup – and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Constitutional Court, Adly Mansour, was appointed Interim President by the military. Street protests followed, in support of the deposed Morsi, and the response of the police and the military was brutal: many protestors and journalists were butchered. Human Rights Watch registered 817 deaths during the protests.
Three years on, Ibrahim Halawa is still in jail. He has not had a trial that would give him the opportunity to establish his innocence. Instead, his court-hearing has been delayed over 15 times.
Ibrahim’s 30 year old sister, Somaia Halawa – who herself spent three months in prison – looks back on what has happened in despair. But she remains determined to ‘Free Ibrahim Halawa’.
MORE HUMANE TO BE KILLED
“Ibrahim was born in Ireland and my mum and my dad are Egyptian,” Somaia explains. “We would go to Egypt every year to see our family. None of us were ever seriously involved in politics and we’re not activists. Not that there’s any harm in being activists, but we were just never that involved.
“When we first got to Egypt that summer, we didn’t really know what was happening. We had heard that people were going out on the street protesting against President Morsi, or protesting with him, but we didn’t know much about the politics of those protests. Then, when the coup took place – and all of a sudden your voice is not heard and people are being arrested or murdered for no reason – we felt like there was a duty to support people’s human rights.
“That was why we protested, peacefully, in Cairo, on July 3. Then we went home after it. It happened that we witnessed the coup coming to where we were protesting – and that’s when the violence started. My sister Fatima was shot with a rubber bullet. Many people were killed that day. It was really upsetting to see this, especially when the TV and the media say one thing, and you witness the reality. We knew we were protesting peacefully.”
She vividly recalls the events that led to Ibrahim’s arrest.
“On August 16, there was another protest to support our friends and family, who were being persecuted. We weren’t familiar with the area of the protest, so when we found it, it had already finished. As we headed back, we witnessed police beginning to round up and shoot people, so we ran to the nearest mosque for safety. We were brought-up to believe that, whether it’s a mosque or a church, no fighting should happen in a holy place. But the police proceeded to attack us in the mosque. As they attacked, they threw tear-gas, which caused me to faint. When I woke up – and realised I was still in the mosque – I tried to find my sisters. I will always remember that scene from inside when they started throwing the bombs: even though he was the youngest, Ibrahim surrounded us with his arms. He was ready to take any harm to protect us.
“We were led out of the mosque in groups, and told to put our hands up and lie down on our bellies. As this was happening, people were still fainting from the effects of the tear-gas. We were herded into a van and policemen and members of the army were trying to sexually harass us. “They then brought us to a military camp. Men were tortured no matter what. Women, it depended on whether you talked or if you looked around. When we were inside the camp, I found Ibrahim. He had his t-shirt wrapped around his hand because he’d been shot as he’d left the mosque. They threw us into separate cells.”
The prison was a grim and horribly frightening experience.
“No words can describe the inhumane conditions of those cells, with 50 to 60 people all thrown in together,” she says. “People were fainting, people were screaming to the officers that it was more humane to be killed than it was to be kept in this room. For four days they kept us in our cells. Then we were blindfolded and brought for questioning. The officer who questioned us gave us a list of charges against us. As this was going on, Ibrahim was in pain from not having had medical care from his gunshot wound. People all around us were dying from not having had treatment.
“Then we were separated and my sisters and I taken to a woman’s prison for three months. At the end of the three months, we were taken to a hearing, one that hadn’t been scheduled, and were brought in front of a judge. The judge didn’t even call our name or ask if we were the right people or not. All he said was: ‘I hope you’ve learned your lesson’, and that was it.
“As we were leaving the prison, we asked if Ibrahim was going to be released and were told he wasn’t on the list. He wouldn’t be going home with us.”
EFFECT ON HIS MENTAL HEALTH The nightmare of 2013 ended for the Halawa sisters when they reached the Irish embassy and were given passports to go back to Ireland. In a sense, however, the family’s predicament was only getting worse. Since then, they have waged a campaign to free Ibrahim Halawa – who has, by this time, become the focus of an international storm.
As the family sought help from politicians and governments, it became clear that the EU was divided on how to respond to the Egyptian coup – and there was, as a result, a reluctance to put pressure on the Egypt authorities on Ibrahim’s behalf.
The Irish government’s approach has also failed to inspire confidence. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Charlie Flanagan, was slow to respond and seems to be mortally afraid to do anything that might upset the Egyptian government. This is not just the Halawas view: human rights groups like Amnesty International and the London-based Doughty Street Chambers firm (who have taken up the case) have been highly critical of the government’s softly-softly approach.
“We don’t deny that every effort is being made to get Ibrahim freed,” Somaia explains. “I know it’s not easy to deal with something as big as the Egyptian government. But what we’ve been trying to say is that a soft approach is not right for this case, and that is what the Irish authorities have been following. They still think that one day Egypt will have a trial for Ibrahim, despite the fact that his case has been delayed 15 times already.
“There needs to be a harder approach taken. Our lawyers, and the human rights groups supporting us, think that the time is right for the Taoiseach to get involved and directly help to end this.”
Back in jail in Egypt, Ibrahim is so upset at the lack of action that, last month, he began to refuse further visits from the Irish embassy officials, who had been seeing him regularly for three years.
“He has refused visits, because he’s started to feel that the more he’s getting them, the longer he’ll be in prison,” states Somaia. “It’s taken a serious mental toll on him and I think he’s gotten to the stage where he feels like he has to do this to put pressure on the Irish government. As a result, the prison authorities beat him and threw him in a prison with the common criminals. He has a condition now – we’re not sure if it’s a heart problem or a breathing problem, but he’s in a prison where people are smoking 24/7 and we can’t get him moved. So it’s having a serious effect on his physical as well as his mental health.
“My mother is in Egypt and she goes to visit him – but in the last two to three weeks, he has been refusing even her visits. He’s going into a deep depression. So we’ve been trying to get as many people as possible to post messages for him, to keep him strong – but what we really need is government intervention.”
Clearly, Ibrahim’s situation is increasingly desperate. But things are tough back in Dublin too, as everyone waits in a kind of limbo, unable to go about what might have been thought of as their normal lives. As Ibrahim suffers in one country, Somaia speaks about the impact that his detention has had on her family back in Ireland.
“No words can describe what we’re going through,” Somaia says tearfully. “And what’s worse is that everyone in the family is also going through it. So it’s very hard to talk to someone about it, because we’re all going through the same thing. You can’t automatically continue your life when you’re dealing with things like this. Your niece is growing, your family is getting older, but it doesn’t feel real without Ibrahim. You have no control over the time, you have no control over what is happening. You just feel sometimes that you’re in a coma – and that one day you’ll wake up and it will all be a dream.”
WHAT’S STOPPING THEM?
Somaia’s hope that it will all turn out to have been a bad dream reflects the desperate, painful reality into which the Halawa family were plunged in August 2013. And as the cries of support ring out across the country for the Halawas, 21 year-old Ibrahim still languishes in an Egyptian prison, suffering the injustice of not being given the basic human right to a fair trial.
Will the Irish government finally take the tougher line that might just force his release? The big question is: what the hell is stopping them?
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