The news this week that Ibrahim Halawa was acquitted in Egypt of all charges against him caught many of us by surprise. After so many false hopes in his farcical trial process, I for one, had not expected the announcement of his acquittal. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that he gets out of jail promptly and returns home safely to his family in Ireland where he can pick up the pieces after his hellish 4-year incarceration.

Ibrahim’s arrest, detention and appalling treatment reflect the modus operandi of a repressive regime that can exercise ferocious retribution against dissenting or even questioning voices. Participating in a peaceful protest can land you in jail where you may end up languishing for several years before a full judicial process gets underway.

Now of course Egypt was never a place where people enjoyed full democratic rights, but there was some hope when the Arab Spring revolt of 2011 led to the ousting of the then President Hosni Mubarak. Here in the West, many people wrongly believed the tide had turned against these kinds of oppressive regimes and they hoped the Arab world was at last embarking on a more democratic political and governing process.

That was wishful thinking.

Following Mubarak’s fall, the growing Muslim Brotherhood movement became unpopular among certain sectors in Egypt. After Mohammad Morsi won the presidential elections in 2012, his regime was accused of mistreating secularists, Coptic Christians, liberals and others. Eventually Morsi was ousted by the military. Its then army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, won the presidential elections in 2014 and he remains Egypt’s leader today.

Human Rights Watch Report on Egypt 2017 

If you want to find out more about what goes on there, it’s worth reading the 2017 Human Rights Watch report on Egypt although don’t expect to find it an uplifting read. (By the way, HRW says the Egyptian authorities blocked access to its website in Egypt following the publication of the report this month.)

The HRW report states that since July 2013, when Egypt’s military overthrew Mohammad Morsi, the Egyptian authorities have engaged in a widespread campaign of arrests and intimidation against suspected political opponents. According to HRW this has included suspected extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, travel bans and asset freezes against human rights workers, suppression of freedom of expression and arrests of journalists and activists.

There’s been a significant clampdown on the independence of NGOs and the media along with repression of Christian minorities and intimidation, harassment and sometimes arrest of LGBT people. When it comes to women’s rights, Human Rights Watch states that sexual harassment and violence against women remains endemic.

The report says that under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, “Egypt’s regular police and National Security officers routinely torture political detainees with techniques including beatings, electric shocks, stress positions, and sometimes rape”. Abuse of political detainees in Cairo’s notorious Scorpion prison has included “beatings and force feedings, deprivation of contact with relatives and lawyers, and interference in medical care that may have contributed to at least six deaths in 2015”.

Video accounts of torture 

A chilling video story of several men’s accounts of their incarcerations in an Egyptian jail makes for grim watching. In the video (WARNING: do not watch it if you are squeamish) they describe (through the voice of an actor) the torture they were subjected to. One man recounted how one of his finger nails was pulled out with a pliers . Another was sexually assaulted by the prison guards who stuck a stick inside him. A third man was hung upside down and electrocuted.

The men’s stories are shocking and reveal what appears to be a policy of systematic torture and abuse by government forces; abuses that many had hoped would disappear when Mubarak was ousted from power.

Giulio Regeni 

Retribution against those who investigate the regime’s alleged misdemeanours can be lethal. Take the case of the Italian doctoral researcher Giulio Regeni who was found dead near a desert highway between Cairo and Alexandria in 2016. He had been tortured to death after disappearing in January that year during a trip to Egypt to conduct research into its labour unions. At the time Giulio was studying for a PHD in Cambridge.

The descriptions of the brutality he was subjected to are horrific. His body was pockmarked with cigarette burns; his teeth had been smashed; he had gashes in his back and broken bones in his wrists, feet and shoulders. His neck was broken and his head had been battered.

Only savages could deliver such an excruciating death.

The suspicion is that Giulio probably died at the hands of the security services because of the research work he was conducting. However, that accusation has been strongly denied by the Egyptian police who at one stage claimed they had found Giulio’s killers. That was in March 2016 when the police shot dead five men in Cairo who were travelling in a van. They claimed the men were responsible for kidnapping foreigners and that they had murdered Giulio. But many of those who followed the Regeni story believe the claims were false and that the men were killed as part of a cover up to hide the truth behind the Italian’s murder.

Giulio’s death soured relations between Italy and Egypt and it has made people fearful of delving too deeply into sensitive issues in Egypt.

There is another troubling twist to this story.

Ibrahim Metwally Hegazy 

On Sunday 10th September last the lawyer investigating the young Italian’s murder vanished from Cairo airport. Ibrahim Metwally Hegazy had been on his way to Geneva to attend a UN working group on enforced or involuntary disappearances. Ibrahim co.founded the Association of the Families of the Disappeared in Egypt after his son disappeared in suspicious circumstances in 2013.

It later emerged that Mr Metwally Hegazy was arrested at Cairo International airport and he has since been charged with a number of offences including “establishing an illegal organization” and “communicating with foreign entities to harm state security”.

Frontline Defenders is now running a campaign calling on the Egyptian authorities to “immediately and unconditionally” release Ibrahim Metwally Hegazy.

These reports expose a deeply disturbing side of Egypt where a despotic police state seems to have subsumed the worst practices of the Mubarak regime. They also highlight the enormous courage it takes to question and speak out against the State.

When you read about what can happen to those who end up in police detention in Egypt, you can get some insight into the hell Ibrahim Halawa must have experienced during his 4-year incarceration in Cairo. And while he may not have been subjected to the kind of brutal torture some inmates have experienced, his time behind Egyptian prison bars will no doubt leave him with harrowing memories he’s unlikely to ever forget.

Background to Ibrahim’s arrest

Ibrahim, who’s now 21, has been imprisoned in an Egyptian jail since he and his three sisters were caught up in protests in Cairo in August 2013. The demonstrations were against the ousting of the then president Mohammed Morsi who was a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Ibrahim and his sisters were among many others arrested after they took shelter in a Mosque in Cairo during the protests.

For those of you who followed Ibrahim’s case, you will know that he was subjected to a mass trial process which was adjourned more than thirty times. Amnesty International, which campaigned on his behalf, says not a single “shred of evidence” was presented to the court during this entire process to prove the charges against him were lawful. In fact Amnesty says he was detained solely for “peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly”.

Ibrahim’s three sister were also acquitted this week although they were able to return to Ireland on bail shortly after their original arrest in 2013.

In December 2015 the European Parliament overwhelmingly passed a resolution calling for the immediate and unconditional release of Ibrahim Halawa.

Giulio Regeni

(Read this excellent piece in the New York Times by the Irish journalist Declan Walsh for a comprehensive report on the death of Giulio Regeni.)