Ibrahim Halawa Case: Statements

The Minister is welcome.

I welcome the opportunity to address the Seanad on the consular case of Ibrahim Halawa, a young Irish citizen who has been detained now for almost three years in Egypt. From my first week in office when I met Ibrahim's father, Sheikh Hussein Halawa, securing Ibrahim's return home to Ireland has been a priority for me and my Department. At my direction, unprecedented sustained and focused attention has been given to this important consular case in my Department, including through our embassy in Cairo, having regard to the special circumstances of the case, namely, Ibrahim's age at the time of his arrest and the fact that he has been detained on remand in an Egyptian prison for three years. As a father, I am acutely aware that his detention is a cause of grief and worry to his family in Dublin and to the wider community.

I am disappointed by the delay in the trial as I know Members of the Oireachtas and members of the public are. No one is more disappointed by the recent turn in events than Ibrahim and his family. I invited members of his family, including Sheikh Halawa, to meet me on Tuesday and my Department continues to provide every consular assistance to them.

I have spoken directly to many Senators about this case and there are strongly held views about the manner in which the Irish Government has approached, and should approach, it. For my part, I assure Senators that our approach is under continuous review. It is informed and shaped by, inter alia, regular contact with Ibrahim's family and his legal representatives, the experience and expertise of my departmental officials, our consultations with other states that have had citizens in similar situations and advice from legal and political experts with a knowledge of Egypt and the situation therein.

Regardless of our difficulties with the trial - I am on record as having many concerns about it - the reality is that the Irish Government cannot directly interfere with a criminal trial in another jurisdiction. What we can do, and what we continue to work hard to do, is to provide all consular care possible to Ibrahim while he is in prison and work towards his release at the earliest possible opportunity. In this regard, we have proactively used all of the diplomatic tools available to us to ensure that the Egyptian Government at the highest levels fully understands the political importance that the Irish Government attaches to a resolution of this case. The Government is continuing to pursue every constructive avenue to secure the release of Ibrahim Halawa and we will continue to bring all of our influence to bear on his behalf through all effective channels.

All actions taken in this case are considered in the context of the Government's clear strategy, which is focused on two core objectives: first, to see Ibrahim released by the Egyptian authorities so that he can return to his family and his studies in Ireland as soon as possible; and, second, to provide every possible consular support for his welfare and health while he remains in detention. All of the sustained and focused actions that have been taken by the Government, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and our embassy in Cairo throughout this case have been aimed at furthering these two objectives and, importantly, avoiding any action that could be counterproductive or detrimental to the interests of Mr. Halawa.

I am in regular contact with my Egyptian counterpart, Minister Shoukry, making clear the Irish Government's concerns and objectives in this case. Most recently, on 16 June I travelled to Cairo to underline our concerns about this case directly to Minister Shoukry.

I clearly restated our objective to see Ibrahim return to Ireland as soon as possible. I also underlined our desire that everything possible be done to ensure his welfare and well-being while he remained in custody. My visit conveyed the great importance the Government and I personally attached to this case. The Taoiseach discussed Mr. Halawa's detention with the Egyptian President, Mr. el-Sisi. The Egyptian Government is in no doubt about the Irish Government's position and our anxiety to see Ibrahim released as soon as possible.

In addition to engagement with the Egyptian authorities, the Government has also been engaging on an ongoing basis with other states that have had citizens in similar circumstances, our European and international partners represented in Egypt and the European Union. I have engaged extensively with the EU High Representative, Ms Federica Mogherini, who, at my request, has personally raised Ibrahim Halawa's case with the Egyptian Government. Officials in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, both in Dublin and Cairo, remain in ongoing contact with the Halawa family. I met Ibrahim's father, sister and legal team on Tuesday of this week and my consular officials keep an open channel of communication with them.

In the light of all these efforts, yesterday's further deferral of the trial is deeply disappointing and I share the family's acute frustration at the lack of progress. As many Members of this House will know, the Government formally supported an application made by Ibrahim Halawa's legal team in 2015 for his return to Ireland under presidential decree 140. We will continue to offer all appropriate support to the efforts of Ibrahim's lawyers to secure his release.

This morning I met the Egyptian ambassador to Ireland and conveyed to her the Government's deep concern about the prolonged nature of the trial and my concerns for Ibrahim Halawa. Ambassador Cole will visit Ibrahim in the coming days and my Department will tomorrow meet the Halawa family and its legal representative to review options for possible next steps. The Government will remain resolute in pursuing its clear objectives in this case and what we firmly believe to be in this citizen's best interests and what is most likely to contribute to a positive outcome for him. I assure any Member of the House who considers that he or she has a helpful contribution to make that my door remains open. As I have stated, our approach to the case is kept under continuous review. Our interest is similar to that of everybody in the House. It is to secure the early release and return of Ibrahim Halawa to his family in Dublin.

I welcome the Minister. This is a tragic case. As we all know, Amnesty International has declared Ibrahim Halawa a prisoner of conscience. He is the only Irish citizen resting in a foreign jail who has been declared a prisoner of conscience by that organisation. It means that he is innocent of all charges.

On 21 April last year the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade stated there had been inaccurate reports that Ibrahim had been tortured, yet Reprieve and other human rights organisations have stated there has been a risk of torture and that they understood he had been tortured. It is tragic to think this Irish citizen, a young man in a foreign jail, has been subject to torture. That is one issue but the other is that of charges.

Mr. Halawa’s legal team is of the firm belief he is facing the death penalty, yet the Taoiseach said in the Dáil that he was facing lesser charges. Mr. Halawa's legal team maintains the position that he is facing the death penalty. We need to have this clarified, but we also need to know what works. We all agree on that point. What works is what the Australians have done. What they did at the highest level was pursue the President of Egypt on decree 140 which allows for prisoners to be released prior to a trial taking place. This is a legal opinion from Doughty Street Chambers and KRW Law, Kevin Winters' law firm in Belfast. Doughty Street Chambers is internationally renowned. Ms Amal Clooney has been involved in this case also. The legal opinion is that the Irish Government maintains Law 140 cannot be applied. It states that, strictly, the Government has to wait until Mr. Halawa receives a trial. However, the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Ms Julie Bishop, acknowledged on the day when Mr. Peter Greste, an Australian citizen, was sent for retrial after the decision in the original trial had been overturned or quashed that he was back in the position of an accused person awaiting trial. That is exactly the position Ibrahim Halawa is in. According to his legal team, Law 140 clearly allows for the transfer to Ireland of Mr. Halawa prior to a final judgment being given in his case. The legal team urges the Irish Government to pursue Law 140 which permits the transfer of an accused and convicted person to his or her state for the purpose of trying him or her or carrying out his or her sentence. One would imagine that we would be pursuing Law 140.

Last year I proposed to the foreign affairs committee that Ibrahim Halawa’s legal team, Kevin Winters’ firm, come down from Belfast and that representatives of Doughty Street Chambers come to Ireland to give their opinion on what this Parliament and parliamentarians could do. Believe it or not, it had to be put to a vote, in which Fine Gael and the Labour Party voted not to have the legal team give us evidence on what it believes should happen. What does this say?

Some people believe in soft diplomacy and I have been known to pursue it on occasion, but sometimes I do not believe it works. In this case, it has not worked for Mr. Ibrahim Halawa and it will not work for him. What has worked and what will work is Law 140. Fianna Fáil will be asking the foreign affairs committee to invite Kevin Winters’ law firm and Doughty Street Chambers to a meeting of the committee to tell us what they believe will work. What I believe will work is what worked for the Australian Peter Greste. He is now back in Australia, his release having been successfully secured by his Prime Minister in pursuing the President of Egypt to have him issue a presidential decree under Law 140. The man had actually not been convicted, but was released prior to his trial taking place. I ask Members who have party representatives on the foreign affairs committee to ensure transparency this time.

We will be putting on the Order Paper a motion that was passed by the European Parliament and supported by Fine Gael MEPs. When we asked for it to be supported by Fine Gael and the Labour Party in the Houses, they would not do so. When we resubmit the motion next week, I ask that they do so and call for the immediate release of Ibrahim Halawa.

I thank the Minister for taking time out of his very busy schedule this week. We know that he has been involved in many other activities as part of his brief.

We all know the story of Ibrahim Halawa and the issues that arise from it. I remind the House that he is an Irish citizen. We know that his human rights are being violated and that the public at large is not quite convinced by the strategy of the Government. There is, as a result, considerable frustration. There are many associated sensitivities that might not always have been spoken about. However, the reality is that we have to go down the diplomatic route. A new course must be charted because it is clear that the softly-softly diplomatic approach, to which Senator Mark Daly referred, simply has not worked, yet we have to keep the channels of diplomacy open. There are many strands to government, international understandings and coexistence with countries throughout the world. These are facts that pepper and are found in every strand of our relations with other countries and we must respect this. That said, the human rights of Irish citizens have to be defended and protected. As Senator Mark Daly rightly said, Mr. Halawa is on the Amnesty International list of prisoners of conscience.

I implore the Minister to keep going and pursue other possible avenues. The public at large is not convinced. I have met many people in the Halawas' community who are involved with the mosque in Clonskeagh who have said to me they are not convinced. That is disappointing. I acknowledge, however, that there are sensitivities.

The Minister is constrained but I wish him well. The pressure has to mount. I thank him for coming to the House.

Ibrahim Halawa is only aged 20, slightly younger than myself. He should be studying in college and living his life surrounded by friends and family. Those college years have been lost because he has spent the past 1,048 days incarcerated in a filthy, overpopulated Egyptian jail. He has detailed the ill-treatment and torture he has faced along with other prisoners. He has been unable to see an independent doctor from outside the prison. It is shocking that the Department of Foreign Affairs has been unable to facilitate and ensure an external doctor visits one of our citizens. Ibrahim was 17 when he was arrested but he is being treated as an adult. He was not charged until a year after this arrest and is now part of a sham mass trial in which he has no hope of ever receiving a fair hearing. His trial has been postponed 14 times.

Sinn Féin understands the Minister absolutely has to be tempered in his remarks but Egypt is a brutal dictatorship. The Egyptian Government is a notorious human rights abuser and there is no fair legal system. I do not look for the Minister to criticise the Egyptian military regime but I want him to ensure Ibrahim Halawa is released and returned to Ireland. The Department has repeatedly failed to do as much. The Minister has informed the Dáil and the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade that the presidential decree under law 140 can only be applied following a prison sentence. That is an untruth. It took Sinn Féin bringing Mr. Peter Greste and his team to Ireland to address Oireachtas Members and the media to explain that is not the case. Mr. Greste is an Australian citizen. He was able to return home because the Australian Government fought tooth and nail for his release and it applied for a decree prior to his sentence. He was on RTE radio yesterday explaining exactly that. He was sentenced in absentia and cannot return to Egypt.

I regret that the Government has been misled twice by the Egyptian authorities, once when they lied about Ibrahim's whereabouts and which prison he was in and, again yesterday, when we were led to believe that his trial would conclude only to be postponed for a 14th time. When will the State change its strategy? When will the Minister apply for the presidential decree? I do not say the Department has failed to do anything and the Minister has outlined many of the actions it has taken. We acknowledge the number of consular visits that have been undertaken but the strategy is failing Ibrahim. Sinn Féin is not the only party saying that; the Minister's colleague in government, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, said as much earlier.

According to yesterday's report on the trial, the judge released two defendants without reason. Is the Department investigating that? Why was Ibrahim not released? The most worrying aspect of this, which has not been picked up by the media, is that three defendants have died since the previous court hearing. As mayor of south Dublin, Firhouse and Tallaght, I was proud to represent the area in which Ibrahim grew up. I received a letter from him which stated:

Dia dhuit, a chara,

Thank you so much for your support and the Sinn Féin team in Tallaght, How much I miss Tallaght. Please send my Hellos to everyone at home.

Go raibh míle maith again

Yours

Ibrahim Halawa

Cell S

Tora Prison

Cairo

Egypt

I commend the work Ms Lynn Boylan, MEP, who is in the Gallery, has done on this case.

Why has the Minister not asked the Taoiseach to request that the European External Action Service monitors the trial?

I thank Senator Buttimer for facilitating the debate and I am grateful to the Minister for attending because this is an important debate. I join previous speakers in expressing utter condemnation of the 14th deferment of Ibrahim's trial and the apparent restarting of the entire process. It is 1,046 days since Ibrahim was first incarcerated in Egypt. He was aged 17 when he was arrested and he is 20 now. He has lost those wonderful formative years when Irish teenagers explore the world and find their feet. My 17 year old daughter travelled to Spain yesterday to visit relatives, as she has done for many years. She was born in Holland but is an Irish citizen. If she took part in a protest, as 17 year olds do, and was arrested, I would move heaven and earth to try to bring her home and I would demand that the Government do so. I would like every Irish parent to imagine if their son or daughter went abroad, did nothing wrong and ended up enduring three years of extreme conditions in jail without trial what they would expect the Department of Foreign Affairs to do and what they would want the Government to do.

I was once detained abroad in 1985 by the French military along with three other members of Greenpeace. My mother frantically telephoned the former Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr. Peter Barry, who immediately engaged in intensive dialogue with his French counterparts. I was released and deported back to Ireland seven days later without a passport that had been destroyed. In Ibrahim's case, the approach of the Department has been one of caution and temperance. I understand the wisdom of adopting the approach deemed most successful but it has to be admitted that it has to date failed utterly. I implore the Minister to urgently request President al-Sisi to activate law 140 and issue a presidential decree allowing Ibrahim to come home as soon as possible. The Department asked for this previously but the circumstances now demand this request be more forcefully reinstated. We need to know the timeframe, how quickly can the Department can move forward with this request and what is the Minister's assessment of how likely it is to succeed.

No other EU citizen has been treated in such a way. Why then has Ibrahim, an Irish citizen, been left for so long without assistance? If his surname was O'Sullivan or Murphy, I cannot help but wonder whether his plight would have received the same attention in Ireland. He was born in the Coombe Hospital in 1995 and grew up in Dublin. He likes GAA. He does not deserve what has happened to him and we cannot turn our backs on him any longer. I would like renewed urgency from the Department in working towards Ibrahim's release. I would also like the Minister to exploit and exhaust every channel of support available to him, to meet former prisoners who have been released and who are offering their help, and to look to our allies abroad for support. Let us be certain that we are doing all we can. We cannot let this citizen remain in a Cairo prison any longer.

I welcome the Minister to the House and I thank him for taking this important debate. I join others who have expressed deep concern about the ongoing detention of Ibrahim Halawa. All of us are well aware of the background to the case. He was detained originally aged 17 in August 2013 and, therefore, still a child. Almost three years later at the age of 20, he remains incarcerated having spent more than 1,000 days in prison without trial. A number of us have raised the case a few times in recent years and have always been told to wait for the next date on which he was due to appear in court on the basis that a development would arise then. I was told this just last week when I raised the case privately with officials.

Yesterday, there was a further adjournment - the 14th - of the trial. I was a criminal justice practitioner for many years in our courts. That number of adjournments over three years is unprecedented and would be a cause for considerable concern in any normal functioning criminal court system. Looking at the language used, this most recent adjournment until October has been a particular blow to all concerned. Indeed, Mr. Halawa's solicitor, Mr. Darragh Macken, described yesterday's outcome as an appalling surprise. Mr. Colm O'Gorman from Amnesty International has described the latest postponement as a devastating blow. I echo the assertion of Senator Grace O'Sullivan that it requires a new urgency at Irish governmental level in seeking the release of Mr. Halawa.

I note from the Minister's language, both in the statement he issued yesterday and in his speech today, a welcome ratcheting up of pressure on the Egyptian authorities. Everyone has acknowledged that this issue has dominated relations between Dublin and Cairo for the past three years. The Minister pointed out the extensive consular activity - I noted 51 consular visits, etc. - but it simply has not had the expected or desired impact and we now need to see a ratcheting up of pressure.

On behalf of the Labour Senators, I support Senators Grace O'Sullivan's and Ruane's motion seeking that the presidential decree to be applied to secure the release of Mr. Halawa. Labour Senators have also submitted a shorter motion simply calling for increased efforts to secure the release of Mr. Halawa and I think all of us in this House of whatever party will support that. We have the utmost concern about the continued detention of Mr. Halawa, about the breach of human rights, about the conditions in which he is held and about, most recently, this appalling further adjournment until October.

I thank the Senators for their contributions. I have taken careful note of what has been said. I assure everybody that this case remains a highest priority in my Department and that I will continue to do everything possible to secure the release of Ibrahim Halawa and to see him return home as soon as possible. When I say "everything", let me assure the House that includes all options, some of which have been mentioned here this evening.

I acknowledge that this is a most difficult time for the Halawa family, as it would be for any family in the circumstances. As a father, I am particularly conscious of the points raised in respect of the difficulties, the trauma, the upset and the anxiety, and that is not lost in terms of the engagement of my Department.

We are liaising closely with the Halawa family. We will continue to work in a spirit of co-operation with them in order to make more positive progress towards our shared goal. Indeed, it is the goal of everybody who spoke this afternoon and it is also the goal of Senators who did not have the opportunity to contribute.

A further meeting between officials of my Department and the Halawa family will take place in the coming days and we will review the latest developments and options for future actions in this regard. I and my officials, including the Irish ambassador, H.E. Damien Cole, in Cairo, will continue to engage intensively with the Egyptian authorities to underline strongly and in clear terms our concerns about this case, particulars of which have been evidenced by the contributions this afternoon, and our desire to be in a position to see real progress towards the return of Ibrahim Halawa to his family in Dublin.

I attach the highest priority in the meantime to ensuring that Mr. Halawa's health and welfare are attended to. In this regard, officials from the embassy are arranging a further consular visit to Ibrahim Halawa in his place of detention over coming days.

I thank again thank Senators for their contributions. I would be happy to keep in close contact with Members of the Upper House in this regard. I assure any Senator who feels he or she has advice of a constructive nature to offer that same will be more than welcome by myself and by my officials.