The Dublin teenager who faced a death sentence is now free

Maya Foa
Director of Reprieve

After all his suffering, Ibrahim Halawa is now free, and we at Reprieve are rejoicing along with his relatives, lawyers, politicians and thousands of supporters who worked so hard to bring him home. He will need time and space to recover from his terrible ordeal, and spend time with his loving family.

But it took a lot of work to get here. From the first months of Ibrahim’s detention, it was clear that the Egyptian authorities had little interest in justice in his case. The new government of General Sisi was determined to crack down hard on protests in Cairo and elsewhere, and at the same time that Ibrahim and his sisters were arrested, thousands of other cases began making their way through mass trials in deeply politicised courts. Protesters, bloggers, photojournalists, members of opposition parties, and children were all targeted.

After Ibrahim’s arrest, Reprieve began working with his family, a team of lawyers and our supporters around the world on his case. We heard his terrifying accounts of his detention in the notorious Tora prison. We learnt of how he and other prisoners were regularly stripped, beaten with metal chains, and stamped on. He was singled out for particular abuse for his Irish nationality, with guards telling him that his “European passport” wouldn’t save him, and that he would be executed.

At the same time, we learned that the Egyptian authorities were refusing to recognise official documents, provided by the Irish government, which proved that Ibrahim had been 17, legally a child, at the time of his arrest. Reprieve research found that swathes of children had been arrested in Sisi’s post-protest crackdown. Many – Ibrahim included – were illegally tried as adults.

As the months wore on, it became clear that Ibrahim’s trial alongside 493 others, would fail to meet the most basic international standards. At hearings in Tora, the defendants couldn’t fit into the courtroom. Ibrahim was beaten for daring to complain. International experts and other governments began warning Egypt that its mass trials – where hundreds of death sentences were being handed down – couldn’t possibly offer a fair trial. Yet, rather than listen, the authorities simply decided to purpose-build a huge courtroom out in Wadi Natrun, far from Cairo.

The trial dragged on interminably, with hearings that made a mockery of justice. It emerged that the authorities were handing identical charges to the vast majority of the defendants, Ibrahim included. One judge resigned mid-trial, stating his ‘discomfort’ at overseeing it. The lawyers for the defence were routinely prevented from speaking up for their clients, while the defendants were held behind a cage, from where they could barely see or hear the proceedings. On the way to or from hearings, they were beaten – a punishment for exercising their right to attend the trial.

In Egypt, meanwhile, the Sisi regime shows no sign of ending the terrible political repression of the past four years. Across the Middle East and beyond the language of “terrorism” is increasingly being used as an excuse to lock up and execute protesters who speak out against oppression. Leaders in Europe need to match their rhetoric on the importance freedom and democracy with actions that protect those values from the dictators who undermine them.

There are many more like Ibrahim, and it is our job to help them.

This article originally appeared in The Times.