Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 9 December 2015
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade
Trial of Ibrahim Halawa: Motion
That the committee ask the legal team for Ibrahim Halawa to come before the committee and give an update on his case.
I circulated among members the legal opinion from the legal team for Ibrahim Halawa of Doughty Street Chambers, which states that Egyptian Law 140 could be applied in the case of Ibrahim Halawa in the same way as it was applied in the case of the Australian citizen Peter Greste. There have been a number of criticisms of the Irish Government in relation to this case, which I do not propose to reiterate as this is not a political issue. It is important that Mr. Halawa's legal team be allowed to appear before the committee so that we can discuss with them what they believe can be done, as was done by the Australian Government and Prime Minister.
The Government has already formally supported Mr. Halawa's release under Law 140, which is the presidential decree. That was done last February. The Government has also formally supported the application for Ibrahim Halawa's release on bail. I will meet with the legal team as soon as that can be arranged.
The group has already been in Ireland and has already spoken to many parliamentarians. I do not see the need for duplication. The committee has more urgent issues to deal with than meeting again with people to whom we have already spoken.
I accept that as the Chairman said the Government supported an application under Law 140 but the Government has also stated, including during a meeting of this committee, that Law 140 does not apply in this case. I do not understand how the Government can on the one hand say that it would support an application under Egyptian Law 140, which is a presidential decree that would allow Ibrahim to be released, and at the same time say that that law does not apply. We need clarity on this matter.
We have all met informally with the group but I am asking that the committee meet formally with them in public session, during which members can put questions to them. I do not want the type of informal meeting during which all we will get is-----
As long as I am chairing this committee it will not be a courtroom. The Department officials have already outlined to KRW following receipt of its opinion, that the Government believes that the wording of Law 140 is such that it cannot be allowed in Ibrahim Halawa's case until the trial proceedings have concluded. Based on extensive representations of Ibrahim Halawa's case at the highest level, the Egyptian authorities are unlikely to consider the application of this law under Ibrahim Halawa's case until the trial proceedings have concluded. We have supported this and I have agreed to have an informal meeting with the legal team. I have no problem doing so. The committee has taken a keen interest in this case, as has the Taoiseach. He has met President el-Sisi more than once, including at the COP meeting last weekend in Paris, at which time he again raised this issue with him. The Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Fitzgerald, and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Flanagan, have also met the Egyptian Foreign Minister, Mr. Shoukry. There have been extensive representations in relation to this case. Officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade have also visited Ibrahim Halawa 48 times.
We are all interested in this case. Ibrahim will be 20 years old this month and he has spent over two years now in prison. We believe that Ibrahim's best interests lie in the law taking its course. As politicians and parliamentarians we need to be mindful, in terms of what we do, that we are not seen to be intervening in the legal affairs of Egypt. We need to be very careful in that regard and I urge Senator Daly to act with caution in this matter. I propose that the committee meet informally with the legal team. I do not want negative publicity on Ibrahim Halawa's future emanating from this committee. Let us call a spade a spade on this. With the permission of the committee, as chairman, I will informally meet with the legal team-----
Senator Daly, please allow me to speak. The committee will meet with the legal team, as it has done previously. They were also invited to attend when Dr. Christopher Ward appeared before the committee but, unfortunately, as they were delayed in traffic they did not make it to that meeting.
I am doing this because of the serious criticism of the Irish Government in the document before us in terms of what it is and is not doing. The fact that there appears to be no problem about meeting informally with the legal team but there is a problem with meeting with them formally indicates to me that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade might be upset with what the legal team would have to say about its performance. Why is it that it is okay to meet the legal team informally but not formally? Is it because, as I have outlined to colleagues, the motion calls for the Irish Government to take the same approach as the Australians in seeking the release of Mr. Halawa?
The strategy the Australians employed was to use Law 140 to secure their citizen's release while he was awaiting trial.
Why are we agreeing to an informal meeting - without cameras, without publicity and without the clear light of day - at which questions could be put by members of the committee on this document, which states the Australian Government employed different tactics from ours? It succeeded but we are failing.
Senator Daly has come here on numerous occasions and called on the Taoiseach to lift the phone. Not only did the Taoiseach lift the phone, he spoke to President el-Sisi twice in respect of this matter. We have done everything at the highest level possible. We have followed the same procedures as other countries.
This debate is doing absolutely nothing to benefit this young lad and it is outrageous to be playing politics with this case. I know the family are not happy that their son and brother is in prison but Senator Daly wants us to publicly make a case on behalf of the legal team, which we have already met and which has already made its case. The Chairman has done everything in his power and the State has done everything in its power so it is disgusting because I do not believe for a moment that when the Egyptians are watching the Senator's live broadcast debate-----
I do not think anything can be gained by bringing this young man's legal team to a public meeting of this committee. The best way to handle this case is with diplomacy behind the scenes, as is happening with the involvement of the Taoiseach, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and our diplomatic team. We need to support them but having the legal team here in public session would harm the young man's case, as Deputy Eric Byrne said. At this stage, we need to continue and, if possible, increase the behind-the-scenes contact that has been taking place. Our diplomatic corps has been very supportive of this young man and I have every confidence that the contact the Taoiseach has had will bring about the desired result. We all want to see this young man back in Dublin with his family and continuing his studies. Hopefully that will happen in the very near future.
I support the motion. I have no confidence whatsoever in the legal system in Egypt. It is a sham trial of a huge number of people. The case has been cancelled on a number of occasions on the basis that witnesses have not turned up. It is an absolute joke to see the legal system in Egypt and I do not see how anyone can have any confidence in it. The Chairman said the law will take its course but there is no law relating to this country. What is happening is an absolute joke. People are being arrested and held, as in this case, for years. This young man was 17 years of age when he was arrested. On 19 December, he will be 20. He was on hunger strike at one point for 40 days and the last I heard was that he was still on hunger strike.
I do not see the harm in bringing in the legal team, the members of which believe that the direction the Irish Government has taken in this case is wrong. I would like to hear formally what they actually say. I do not see what harm it would cause if we, as a committee, felt so strongly about the case that we formally met with individuals and groups involved with it. People have argued that we should do it on the quiet and that this is in the best interests of Ibrahim but we have already taken this approach and he is still in jail. I urge the Chair and other members to think again. I have formally met the Australian legal team on the Peter Greste case and the information they gave me was the opposite of what we were being told in this committee. We were told he was no longer charged but the legal team told us he won his case and the Egyptian authorities appealed the ruling, meaning he was still formally under charge. Ibrahim has also been formally charged but we seem to be getting conflicting information and there is now an urgency to this case. I do not know of any other Irish citizen who is facing the death penalty and there is an onus on us to do everything we can to save this young man's life.
I support what the Chairman is saying. We risk damaging his prospects of ever getting out of that jail. He may have been there for two years now but he could be there for his whole life. We have taken the Government-to-Government and Minister-to-Minister approach. We have taken the diplomatic route and our Taoiseach has met Egypt's President. It is the Egyptian state versus Ibrahim's legal team and if we formally invite the legal team, which is on the opposite side to the Government we are trying to persuade, it can do nothing but damage his case.
I absolutely support this motion. The el-Sisi regime is instituting a reign of terror against its own citizens and anybody who is involved in even the mildest form of opposition political activity. It is a sham. These are show trials and have nothing to do with anything one could describe as proper legal process. If we leave Ibrahim to be the subject of a show trial in a sham legal system, which is designed to do nothing but instil terror in the citizenry and opponents, it would be an incredible abdication of our responsibility as fellow citizens and as the political authority which is supposed to protect the rights of our citizens.
At the least, we should hear what his legal team has to say about the ridiculous, nonsensical and cruel process he is being put through and what we can do to help. I appeal to the committee to hear his legal team because this has gone on for too long.
I and most people believe it is not in his best interest to play this out in public. We are all here in the interest of getting this young man out of prison. Deputy Boyd Barrett was not here at the start of this meeting so let me say that we have acted with responsibility on this issue.
The question was asked why the Taoiseach does not lift the phone. Not only did the Taoiseach do that, he met President el-Sisi twice. He met him last week at the COP21 meeting in Paris also and outlined the case. The Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Fitzgerald, has met the Egyptian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr. Shoukry, and our Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Charles Flanagan, has met him twice. I also met the foreign Minister. Everything possible has been done at Government level in this regard. The Government has carried out all the steps outlined in the legal opinion and has followed the same steps the Australians did in the Peter Greste case. We have acted with honour on this issue because we want to try to get this man freed. We want to act in his best interest, not to play this out in a so-called courtroom here.
We are doing our best for this young man. Our embassy staff in Cairo are doing their best and they have met him 48 times since he was incarcerated. It is wrong that he is more than two years in prison and we all agree on that. We are all here for the same reason, to get this man released. However, we believe this is the best way forward. The case is coming up on 15 December and we hope some result will be achieved at that and that the young man can be home in the new year. That is our goal. It is the goal we all want.
I apologise for being late, but I was watching the proceedings. I have been involved in similar situations previously and at no time were there public meetings on the issues, although there were numerous informal meetings held with legal teams dealing with the people imprisoned. I am strongly of the same opinion as the Chairman, that the way to deal with a situation of this nature is to do so discreetly, using all the available resources - the resources available to this committee, to the Government, to the Minister for Foreign Affairs and to the Minister for Justice and Equality. This is in train.
We can second-guess those in the front line dealing with the situation and suggest the issue be dealt with in a different way, but that is not how courts work. Democracy means different things to different people, particularly in different situations and different countries. Not all countries observe the same democratic rules that apply in some countries. We like to think ours is a highly sensitive democratic society. I believe the approach taken so far is the correct approach and that we should continue in this manner.
I have circulated a copy of the legal opinion, but I know members may not have had the opportunity to read it. There are a number of discrepancies in regard to what we have been told at this committee in this regard. This has nothing to do with the court case in Egypt and we are not asking the Government to do anything in this regard. We are asking for information on what happened in regard to law No. 140. The document I circulated lists six key points written by the legal team. It states that, to date, the Irish Government has maintained law No. 140 cannot be applied to Mr. Halawa until Egypt's criminal proceedings against him have concluded. This has been said repeatedly here in this committee and the same message has been e-mailed to us time and again. However, it is clearly not the case. The legal opinion indicates that the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Flanagan, has incorrectly said that Peter Greste was not, strictly speaking, in the course of trial proceedings when he was returned to Australia and that law No. 140 clearly allows for the transfer to Ireland of Mr. Halawa prior to the final judgment being given in his case. The Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Ms Julie Bishop, noted on Mr. Greste's retrial that he is now back in the position of an acute person awaiting trial. Again, we were told that Ibrahim Halawa could not be dealt with until after a trial, but that was not the case for Peter Greste. We were given different information in this committee by our Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. We were told we had to wait until after the trial.
The opinion of Ibrahim's legal team is that it is clear the Irish Government could still do more to secure Mr. Halawa's release. It would be great if we could hear in public session what more we could do. We urge the Government, under Taoiseach Enda Kenny, to take the same approach as Australia in seeking the release and return of Mr. Halawa. To save everybody the bother of having to read the entire document, I will explain our request. While we note the Irish Government's discussions with the foreign prosecutor for Egypt, it is clear the Government can still do more in regard to securing Mr. Halawa's release. We note that Peter Greste was released only after repeated public requests made by the Australian Prime Minister to President el-Sisi, the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs to her counterpart in Cairo and sustained efforts by the Australian ambassador. We urge the Government to do this. The Australian process related to law No. 140, which relates to a presidential decree and has nothing to do with a court case. It secured the release of Peter Greste prior to a trial.
No, before the trial. Now we come to the nub of the issue. It is quite clear. The Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs said in regard to Greste's retrial that Greste was now back in the position of an accused person awaiting trial-----
There are no discrepancies. The Senator is playing politics here. I must move on because it seems there will be no agreement on this. Is the Senator pressing the motion? I will allow Deputy Boyd Barrett make a brief comment.
His version of what those lawyers said is the opposite of my understanding of what they said and, therefore, that is another reason I want a formal meeting that is minuted and from which we can come back with accurate information. I do not know how that can be done.
-----because the legal adviser gave a clear indication to at least two people who were present, including Senator Daly, that he did not to propose to have this issue used as a political football and he would not facilitate it. Is that true or false?
I have said before that the joint committee wants to do what is in Ibrahim Halawa's best interests. I will accede to an informal meeting with the legal team as a matter of courtesy. Given that it has requested a meeting with us, we should accede. I am disappointed there was a vote on this because everyone on the joint committee wants to see this young man freed. That is our goal. Some of us feel that the best way forward is not to deal with it as if the joint committee were a court of law but rather to address it in the way that is in the best interest of Ibrahim Halawa. The world is watching us today on live television.
I support the notion that we accede to the request by the legal team to speak with it. I feel really sick in my stomach that anyone should think today's debate has aided one iota the early release of Ibrahim Halawa. Anyone who thinks that is sick in the head. I resent deeply the use of this poor man's situation as a political football.
I presume we are resuming the debate. There is a difference of opinion on this. While we all want to see Ibrahim home and safe with his family, there are clearly divergent views on the committee on the best way to achieve that.
His 20th birthday is on 13 December and his trial is on 15 December. My concern remains that we have been told different things at different times by our Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in relation to what can and cannot be done for Ibrahim Halawa on law No. 140 and the presidential decree. Other countries have succeeded but we have failed to do for our citizen what the Australians did for Peter Greste. The reason I want to see the legal team here has nothing to do with the Egyptian legal system or the trial there. It is about what our Government should be doing in the same way as the Australians. If one reviews the correspondence we have received from our Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, there are consistent discrepancies on law No. 140 and what can and cannot be done. I am disappointed that we did not want to meet in public session because if there is criticism, let it be heard in public. My concern is that the Government members do not want to hear the criticism of our Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in relation to what it should and should not be doing on this case.
What concerns me most of all was the concern expressed by the legal team that this issue would be used as a political football. Obviously, Senator Daly does not recognise that the Irish Government is doing everything possible in the appropriate fashion in this sensitive situation which could affect the liberty or the life and well-being of the individual concerned.
I am not gifted with the all-seeing foresight Senator Daly obviously has. I am not gifted with his knowledge of international affairs, obviously. He can make any political capital he likes but he should not use the possible life of an Irish citizen in pursuance of his objectives of a political nature.
I propose that we meet the group informally. That was the whole idea behind the motion. It was to meet the group at the earliest opportunity. I ask the legal team to contact the secretariat and we will meet it. Let us be quite clear; we have no problem meeting it. We will meet it informally and deal with this in a constructive way as any committee would deal with something like this. As politicians, we are elected by the people to deal with the matter in the best interests of Ibrahim Halawa.