On Tuesday, eight TDs from the Dáil Éireann, Ireland’s lower house in its legislature, visited a young man who was arrested in Egypt in August 2013 and has been held in prison ever since: Ibrahim Halawa. The TDs also met with Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who told them that he could not intervene on behalf of the young prisoner, but that upon the conclusion of his trial Halawa would be free to return to Ireland.
Ibrahim Halawa is a citizen of Ireland, born there in 1995 and raised there. His family is Egyptian, and he and his sisters traveled to Egypt in the summer of 2013 and took part in the protests riling that nation that summer. The previous president, Mohamed Morsi, had been kicked out of office in a coup, and everyday citizens who support democracy joined with Morsi’s supporters and with actual members of his political party, the Muslim Brotherhood, in the street protests.
President el-Sisi’s government crackdown against the protests was violent and resulted in at least one thousand deaths and several thousand arrests. More than three years later, different sources offer different numbers of the killed, but all state that the number killed in that period is in the hundreds. The thousands arrested are charged with being members of the Muslim Brotherhood and other crimes. Halawa, son of a member of the Muslim Brotherhood (some claim his father is a “leader in exile”), was arrested with his three sisters.
The three sisters were released that same year, and they returned home to Ireland.
Ibrahim, now 21 years old, remains in jail. Ibrahim Halawa is a citizen of Ireland; thus, Irish political leaders have taken an active interest in his case. If I ever travel to a foreign nation and witness or even participate in a protest there and I am detained—further, if the only violence seen in my arrest is the violence used against me and not any by me—I should hope that my local congressman will take an interest in my case. He should.
The eight TDs who traveled to Cairo on behalf of a fellow citizen are heroes.
The Egyptian government sees no difference in the cases of Ibrahim Halawa or Mahmoud Abu Zeid (“Shawkan”) or the thousands of others it arrested in the summer of 2013 in the violent crackdown against former president Morsi’s political party. Halawa is an Irish citizen and thus of interest to his fellow citizens. The Egyptian government considers this irrelevant, which contravenes international norms and agreements.
Halawa and his family apparently ignored Ireland’s travel advice from the nation’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade about visiting Egypt, which reads in part: “We strongly advise you to avoid all protests and demonstrations.” Neither the conscious ignoring of advice nor unconscious obliviousness are crimes. He was 17 when he was arrested.
The next day in court for both Ibrahim Halawa and Shawkan—and hundreds of others—is Tuesday, January 17.
Unlike Ibrahim Halawa, Shawkan is Egyptian and he knew what he was doing at the Rabaa protest in August 2013: he was a credentialed photographer (working for Demotix, now owned by Corbis Images) who was covering the protests and the government’s violent crackdown. Journalists should not be arrested for doing their jobs, which is the reason his story has attracted international interest and the reason why support for his freedom grows louder each day.
There is one important connection between Ibrahim Halawa and Shawkan: an Irish TD’s interest in human rights. In June 2016, a member of Ireland’s Dáil Éireann, Maureen O’Sullivan, wrote to Egypt’s Ambassador to Ireland, Soha Gendi, about Shawkan. She was not one of the eight members who traveled to Egypt this week; she has not published any public statements about the delegation’s trip to Egypt.
Shawkan is an Egyptian photographer whose unfair and cruel pre-trial detention made him into a prisoner of conscience and whose story has attracted the attention of human rights activists, including a human rights-focused member of Ireland’s Dáil Éireann, who used her position to put Egypt on notice that officials around the world are watching. His is an important story.
The eight TDs who traveled to Egypt were not unaware of their colleague’s work on Shawkan’s behalf. Ms. O’Sullivan may not have said anything to them, but supporters of Shawkan based in Ireland have privately come forward to tell me that they certainly brought up Shawkan’s name in letters and emails to the eight TDs.
Ibrahim Halawa is an Irish citizen whose human rights are being violated each day; Shawkan is a prisoner of conscience whose human rights are being violated every day and whose story is an international cause; thus, any politician, from any country (Ireland or any other), who is granted an opportunity to speak about human rights with President el-Sisi and who does not ask him to intervene on behalf of Shawkan has skipped a chance to help a prisoner of conscience. The delegation did not have Shawkan as a part of its official diplomatic mandate, but as human beings, it did.
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The next day in court for both Ibrahim Halawa and Shawkan—and hundreds of others—is Tuesday, January 17. Watch this space.
The WordPress Daily Prompt for January 14 asks us to reflect on the word, “Unseen.”
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