Ibrahim Halawa on life in Egyptian prisons and freedom
Dublin, Ireland – Ibrahim Halawa gazes across a few hundred metres of green land to his old high school.
“There’s a swing and a lake over there,” he says, pointing to the side of the stately Georgian building, a private school for boys. “We used to swing and throw ourselves into the lake. Free-falling felt so beautiful. That’s one of the things I always thought about in prison, the free-falling.”
Set in the hilly village of Rathfarnham, the school is surrounded by acres of grass. In the winter, the softly spoken Irishman remembers, pupils could look outside the classroom window to see reindeer, foxes and sheep.
The idyllic landscape is a world away from what he has just endured.
He arrived back on the cold Dublin soil on October 24, more than four years after being jailed at 17 years old in Cairo, stepping off the plane alongside the Irish ambassador to Egypt, Sean O Regan, to a welcoming party at the arrivals terminal of Dublin Airport.
Egyptian security forces had thrown the now 21-year-old into jail in the summer of 2013, along with three of his sisters and hundreds of others, as part of a deadly crackdown on anti-government protests against Abdel Fattah El Sisi, who was then newly in power.
The siblings, whose parents are of Egyptian origin, had been demonstrating after two of Halawa’s friends were killed while rallying. The sisters were freed months later, but Halawa, the youngest of the family who looked older than his 17 years, was kept in custody.
Following a series of hunger strikes, bouts of depression and suicidal thoughts, a major family-led campaign and intervention by the Irish government, he was finally acquitted in September after his court date had been postponed more than 30 times.
He had faced the death penalty over accusations of violence during demonstrations – charges he and his lawyers denied.
“Everything has just faded away,” he says, shivering in the cold on the hill. “It’s actually very saddening, like. It’s crazy how life moves on so quick. One day you’re there, one day you’re in a prison in Egypt, one day you’re back here again. It’s not my school any more.”
He claims he was tortured in several jails, regularly stripped naked and beaten, denied exercise, served food with worms and cockroaches and taunted by guards who would attempt to bribe him for “information” in exchange for books or meals.
Cells were dirty and cramped, there was no airconditioning in the blaze of Cairo’s sweltering summers, and family visits, like the mass trials he endured, took place in the company of crowds of other prisoners.
“If you want to know the politics of a country, you would visit its prisons,” he says.
‘There’s a corrupt regime in Egypt’
According to human rights groups, there are more than 60,000 political prisoners languishing in Egyptian jails, many of whom have disappeared.
“There’s a corrupt regime in Egypt,” says 26-year-old Fatima Halawa, a media graduate who is now seeking work experience after campaigning for her brother.
“You did wonder, ‘What if Ibrahim doesn’t get out?’ The Irish people’s kindness allowed us to keep continuing on, even when we as a family lost that hope.”
Every day, I think of the cell, how it looked, when I was beaten, that officer – I can just picture everything around me. My room turns into my cell at night-time when I’m sitting alone.
Amnesty and Reprieve were among the organisations that joined efforts to release Halawa, as the family – young children among them – led a “Free Ibrahim” campaign trail from Ireland to the European Parliament in Brussels.
When she heard of her uncle’s return, six-year-old Sundus said: “Free Ibrahim is coming back”.
|When her uncle returned, Sundus, second from right, said: ‘Free Ibrahim is back’ [Anealla Safdar/Al Jazeera]|
“I’m still not used to freedom for now, to get used to it is going to take a lot of time,” Halawa says, the dark rings around his eyes confirming his insomnia.
“The flashbacks are going to stay with me. Every day, I think of the cell, how it looked, when I was beaten, that officer – I can just picture everything around me. My room turns into my cell at night-time when I’m sitting alone … I went from one prison to a larger prison.”
In the years he’s been away, things have changed.
Two of his sisters got married, several nieces and nephews were born and his mother was diagnosed with cancer.
His friends have passed driving tests, bought their own cars, graduated, started serious relationships and secured employment. One works at Google, another became a professional football player in Italy.
During a trip to the city centre, he looks out the car window and notices that Dublin is now awash with donut and burrito spots. And social media, he says, has become “so hateful and antisocial”.
His taste in music has also changed. He left as a rap-loving teenager and returned a young man who enjoys classic rock.
Walking through Dublin’s famous Grafton Street, he stops to listen to a busker playing a guitar and singing “Let Her Go”, a melancholic pop number by the British band Passenger, and smiles as he soaks in this small pleasure.
Every now and then, a stranger stops him for a selfie or to congratulate him on his freedom.
His imprisonment was well documented in Irish media, which cut into programming to announce his release as breaking news. International outlets also rushed to cover the story, as #IbrahimHalawa trended on Twitter.
He’s Irish, he’s not Egyptian. He didn’t deserve the way he was treated.
Ellen Dooley, pensioner
Chatter on the streets is full of joy; their compatriot is home.
“He shouldn’t have been in prison that long. It’s good that he’s out,” says Saira, a young student with flowers in her headscarf. “Everyone was talking about it in the Muslim community – we are really happy he’s been released.”
“It looks very, very unfair to me that a young man can be held for four years without a fair trial, or a trial of any description,” says Jimmy Dylan, who works in property. “Remember the worst times, but just get over them. Think of the happy times,” he says, advising Halawa on how to move on.
|Amnesty was among the organisations which supported Halawa’s case [Courtesy: Somaia Halawa]|
“No one knew what was going on, except he was suffering. I was happy for him. It wasn’t fair what happened,” says Jumana, a student of media.
“He spent a difficult time there and now he’s free, I am very happy,” says Khalid, a Saudi resident of Ireland. “Keep going brother Ibrahim.”
“He didn’t deserve the way he was treated. I would say to him … to stay at home and to keep away from all the problems,” says Ellen Dooley, a pensioner. “He’s Irish, he’s not Egyptian. He didn’t deserve the way he was treated.”
Racism upon return
While most have welcomed Halawa home, some social media users accuse him of being a terrorist or a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood or ISIS – often all three. They deny his right to being Irish, because he is not white, and falsely claim he tore up his passport during a protest in Egypt.
His father, Sheikh Hussein Halawa, is the Republic of Ireland’s most senior Muslim leader and the imam at the country’s biggest mosque, in Clonskeagh, and is also subject to hate speech.
“I’ve overcome worse,” Halawa says, in his Dublin accent. His mother tongue is English and he only perfected Arabic in prison. He has one passport – the Irish one – and is not a dual citizen.
“At that time [of the protests], my friends were dying. For people to call me a terrorist for standing up for what’s right, I just couldn’t understand.
“To see that negative side of course was very hard for me at the start. But there will always be negativity.
“Someone who differs with my political opinion is free to believe whatever he wants to believe. What I am saying is that I was unjustly detained for four years. I was a normal 17-year-old that got arrested.”
|Friends Anas Djebbari, left and Pete Moloney, right, campaigned for Halawa’s release [Hassan Ghani/Al Jazeera]|
While he was in custody, his friends worked hard to protect his reputation.
Pete Moloney, a final-year degree student, was brought to tears at the airport welcoming party.
“It was one of the happiest days of my life,” he says. “When it came to defending his name, it was something I felt had to be done.
“He’s someone that would literally do anything for you. I always thought in the back of my mind, ‘Ibrahim would be doing more for you’. He’d do anything to help his friends.”
He’s the same dude that went in. My biggest fear was that he’d be a whole different person, darker. I can tell he’s been through a lot, even by his expressions
Anas Djebbari, Ibrahim Halawa’s childhood friend
Anas Djebbari, 21, has known Halawa since they were five years old. They refer to each other as brothers and had made pacts to graduate together and hold their weddings on the same day. Halawa lovingly jokes that having shot up almost a foot in height since 2013, Djebbari is now as tall as the coat hanger in his living room.
By the time Halawa was released, Djebbari had already completed university and got a job as a software engineer.
“That weight [of Halawa’s imprisonment] was heavier than all of them,” he says. “It was like [him] coming back from the dead in a way. It felt like an imagination, it wasn’t real. Like someone you know passed away, and yeah, he’s back.
“He’s the same dude that went in. My biggest fear was that he’d be a whole different person, darker. I can tell he’s been through a lot, even by his expressions.”
Now, Halawa is planning to continue his studies next year and eventually work on human rights cases, though he acknowledges that starting four years behind won’t be easy.
“I’m going to start college and they will all be getting married,” he says. “I just didn’t go to the same college my friends went to, I went to a different school of life.
“It’s going to be a lot harder for me, of course, but I have to do it.”
Follow Anealla Safdar on Twitter: @anealla