I welcome the opportunity to support the Motion before the House regarding the consular case of Ibrahim Halawa, a young Irish citizen detained now for almost three years in Egypt, following his arrest during protests in Cairo in 2013.
This consular case is a high priority for the Irish government. In my first week in office as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, I met Ibrahim’s father, Sheikh Hussein Halawa, and I undertook to do all I could as Minister to secure Ibrahim’s return to Ireland and to ensure that we supported him while he was in prison.
I was acutely conscious of Ibrahim’s tender age at the time of his arrest – he was 17 years of age – and I had, and continue to have, serious concerns about the fact that he is subject to a group trial. During my period as Minister, and indeed, prior to my appointment, when former Tánaiste Gilmore was Minister, this case has received unprecedented and sustained attention from the Government, and in particular from my Department and our Embassy in Cairo. This will continue.
I am aware of the sincere interest in this consular case in the Oireachtas and both I and the Taoiseach and, indeed other members of Government, regularly answer questions and speak on it in Parliament. In fact, I addressed this matter during Parliamentary Questions on Tuesday evening.
Nonetheless, today is an important opportunity to again update the House on the actions being taken by myself and my colleagues in Government in the furtherance of our clear strategy in relation to this case. This comprises two core elements: firstly 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, secondly, to provide every possible consular support for his welfare while he remains in detention.
In terms of our efforts to secure Ibrahim’s release, I and the Government are proactively using all of the tools that are available to us to apply maximum pressure on the Egyptian Government at the highest levels to ensure that they fully understand our concerns and the importance that the Irish Government attaches to the resolution of this case.
However, the Irish Government has, at all times, supported applications for Ibrahim’s release made by his legal team. This includes support for a bail application and support for the first application made under Decree 140 in 2015.
I want to be very clear on a point here. There have been some assertions in the past that the Irish Government has misunderstood or misrepresented the provisions of the Egyptian decree 140. Let me say that we do not dispute that the text of this decree suggests that it is capable of being applied at any stage in the criminal justice process, and does not need to await a final verdict. However, what we have said, and what continues to be the position, is that the Egyptian Government has been clear and consistent in telling us that it will not be considered while the case remains before the courts.
In light of the latest adjournment in the trial and in close and ongoing coordination with the Halawa family and their legal representatives, the Government intends to lend its full and urgent support to a further request for release under Presidential Decree 140. We will continue to work in support of these efforts.
The Taoiseach conveyed this message directly to Egyptian Presiden el-Sisi on Monday when he once again called him on the case. This was the 3rd occasion that the Taoiseach spoke to President el-Sisi about Ibrahim. On Monday, he used the opportunity to once again convey and underline our concerns at the latest adjournment, and stressed again the importance that the Government places on this case. During that call, the Taoiseach set out, as we have done in previous contacts with the Egyptian authorities, the arguments for Ibrahim’s immediate release.
The President made it very clear that he understands that this is a significant matter of concern for the Irish Government. He pointed to the requirement to respect the doctrine of separation of powers, as the Egyptian authorities have done consistently, and said that the Egyptian Government is not in a position to intervene in a case which is before the Courts. However, he made clear to the Taoiseach that he wishes to see this matter resolved in the context of a positive bilateral relationship between our two countries.
For my part, I have had a long series of engagements, by phone, be letter and face-to-face, with my Egyptian counterpart, Minister Sameh Shoukry, over the past two years or so since I was first appointed to this role. Last month when in the Middle East, I availed of an opportunity to visit Cairo to meet Minister Shoukry and once again raised Ibrahim’s case with him, making clear the Irish Government’s concerns and objectives in this case. My visit conveyed the high importance that I personally and the Irish government attach to this case.
At that stage, on the 16th of June, there was some reason to expect that there would be significant developments in the court case when it resumed on the 29th June – the court itself had indicated as much at the previous hearing on March 6th.
Regrettably, yet again, the case was once again delayed. And the time-frame for its completion remains uncertain.
Members of the House will be aware of the statement I issued that day expressing deep disappointment and frustration with the latest news form the Egyptian court. The following morning I met with the Egyptian Ambassador to Ireland and conveyed to her the Government’s deep concern at the unacceptably prolonged nature of the trial and my own concerns for Ibrahim. As I’ve said the Taoiseach conveyed our concerns directly to President el-Sisi earlier this week.
From all of these engagements, at all levels, I can assure the House that the Egyptian Government is in no doubt about the Irish Government’s position and our anxiety to see Ibrahim released as soon as possible.
The Irish government has consulted far and wide on this case and we remain very open to all helpful suggestions including from members of the Oireachtas. I want to assure Members that my approach and that of the Government is under continuous review. It is informed and shaped by, inter alia, regular contact with Ibrahim’s family and his legal representatives, by the experience and expertise of my Department officials, by our wide-ranging, detailed and extensive consultations with other States who have had citizens in a similar situation, and by advice from legal and political experts with a knowledge of Egypt, as well as relevant human rights organisations, other NGOs and civil society actors.
In addition to direct engagement with the Egyptian authorities, the Government has also been engaging on an ongoing basis with other states who have had citizens in similar situation - with our European and international partners represented in Egypt, and with the European Union. I have engaged extensively with the EU High Representative, Ms Federica Mogherini, who – at my request - has personally raised Ibrahim’s case with the Egyptian Government at the highest levels. Other key partners in Europe and elsewhere have also been helpful in raising the case on our behalf.
The House is aware of the unprecedented sustained and focussed attention that continues to be given to this top priority consular case in my Department, including through our Embassy in Cairo. Over 50 consular visits have been made to Ibrahim during his period of detention including, most recently, a visit led by Ambassador Cole on Sunday last, 3 July.
Officials in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, both in Dublin and in Cairo, remain in close and ongoing contact with the Halawa family. I met myself with Ibrahim’s family, including Sheikh Halawa, and his Irish legal team, on Tuesday 28 June, and my consular officials keep an open channel of communication with the family also, and had a further meeting with the Halawa family last Friday. Indeed, just before this debate, I met with members of Ibrahim’s family.
I assure this House that 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 to be most likely to contribute to a positive outcome for him.
I welcome this Motion and believe that it provides a mechanism to reaffirm to the Irish public, to Ibrahim and his family, and to our international colleagues that the public representatives of this House are working together to achieve the release of this Irish citizen as soon as possible.