Kafka On the Nile: Egypt’s Trial Without End for 494 People

An Irish teen waits and waits in an Egyptian jail, one of 494 defendants in a surreal trial that may never happen.

02.22.15 10:15 AM ET

The perspex-and-metal cage for defendants inside the courtroom stands empty, although the rows of benches inside could never seat 494 people. Outside the cage, lawyers have clustered near the front of the courtroom to smoke cigarettes, offhandedly thumb their papers, drink tea, check their phones—but not see their clients, the defendants. A security guard tasked with guarding the judges' entrance uses the antennae on his walkie-talkie as a comb, yawning.

The cavernous courtroom, its filthy windows open to birds that fly high above in the rafters, sits empty of defendants and judges for almost two hours before the prosecutor general approaches a microphone at the front announces that the trial will be delayed again—this time until Mar. 29.

Lawyer Ahmed Hassan rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet, sometimes crossing down to the lower tiers of the courtroom to chat with one of around 30 lawyers waiting in the courtroom. He wore a shiny suit, and sweat beaded on his forehead. Asked why the trial has undergone so many delays, he laughed: "no one knows really," he said. "This is Egypt. Things like this take time."

The 494 defendants weren't brought to the courthouse at all on Feb. 8. A previously annulled trial date in January named security and logistical concerns in transporting them from the Tora prison complex, where the courthouse is located. This is the venue of the infamous trials of the Al Jazeera Three and Hosni Mubarak, a tiered room of dusty tiered wooden benches next to the caged defendants enclosure. The wire mesh of the outside was reinforced with what appears to be tinted perspex sometime in 2014, and later an inner perspex chamber was added. The resulting setup makes only the silhouettes of people inside the defendants box visible, and barely any sound gets out, save for the banging of hands on the side of the box or the occasional shout of rage. There is a speaker inside the box, so defendants can hear what's being said, but they are unable to reply unless the judge allows them to leave the box and approach the judge's bench. The setup may be brutal, but these 494 have long waited for a day where they can enter it.

The 494 accused have been literally waiting for their day in court since August 2013. Feb. 8 marked the fourth time that the Ramses Square case has been delayed, due to the unique logistical challenge of finding a venue that holds so many defendants at once. The prosecutor general stated that the new courtroom in Wadi el-Nadel will be adapted to fit all the defendants, although there is no guarantee that this will actually happen in time for the March court date. So far the closest attempt at a hearing was on Aug. 13 2014, where the defendants were made to enter the box in groups of 100, while those shut out of their own trial clamored at the back. Judge Mahmoud Kamel el-Rashidi walked out, citing "unease" at having to watch this farce.

The defendants await trial, seemingly a wait without end, in Cairo's most notorious jail. This is the largest mass trial to date where all the defendants are present, but paradoxically this also means that there is limited incentive to actually hold the trial as all 494 are already imprisoned. Perhaps this reluctance is also because the trial unites so many elements that currently bring scorn on Egypt: mass trials, trials of children and most prominently, the swallowing of foreign nationals into Egypt's labyrinthine court system.

Outside the courthouse on Feb. 8, the Irish ambassador Isolde Moylan conferred quietly with Nosayba Halawa. Halawa is the sister of Ibrahim Halawa, an Irish teenager who has been swept up in the case, and is now one of the 494 people on trial. Moylan, dressed in a royal blue suit, allowed a single tear to roll slowly down her cheek as Halawa relayed a message from Ibrahim. Moylan smoothed her hair and put on her sunglasses, ready for business inside the courtroom.

Meanwhile, Ibrahim Halawa spends his days in a cell where he and his cellmates often elect to turn the lights off so that they can feel the light change, and know that the day is passing. A week earlier, he had reminded his sister during a visit that had he not been imprisoned, he'd currently be in his second year at university. The exam timetable for the Irish Leaving Certificate exams, which students take at the end of high school, is still pinned to his bedroom wall in Dublin. To put it another way, Nosayba recounts her brother saying: "I left an iPhone 4S when I got in here, and now there's an iPhone 6 plus? The world is turning and I'm still in the same place.”

Case 3163 of 2013 is the Ramses Square trial, following the events that took place in Ramses Square in Cairo on Aug. 16 and 17 of that year. The summer witnessed a gruesome cycle of bloodletting stemming from the removal of former president and Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Morsi on June 30. On Aug. 14, 2013, Egyptian security forces had demolished the Muslim Brotherhood protest encampment in Cairo's Raba'a al-Adawiya Square, killing at least 817 people with premeditated precision according to Human Rights Watch.

The Ramses Square protest was part of a "Day of Rage" called by the Brotherhood in response to the violence they'd witnessed at Raba'a and the crackdown on their movement by the Egyptian regime. Videos taken on the day shows some protestors gathering atop the overpass that cuts through Ramses Square, before climbing down makeshift ropes to shelter underneath from gunfire. There was chaos in the square, as people dodged small fires and the hail of bullets while an Egyptian army helicopter circles overhead. Local Neighborhood Watch groups joined forces with plainclothes police officers and the police to battle the Muslim Brotherhood protestors. Official figures say that 173 protestors were killed all over Egypt during the "Day of Rage," and over 1000 injured. Of these deaths, 94 were in Ramses Square.

In the middle of this chaos were Somaia, Omaima and Ibrahim Halawa. The Halawas were in Egypt for their annual holiday, having been raised in Ireland after their father, Sheikh Hussein Mohammed Halawa, became the Imam of Dublin's Clonskeagh Mosque. The three had witnessed the violence in Rabba'a Square two days earlier, where their sister Fatima was shot in the leg. Somaia said this compelled them to go to Ramses Square despite the threat of further violence. While the sisters are more outspokenly political, Ibrahim appears to have been there mainly to protect his sisters. His interests involved football and his studies, and he had rarely involved himself in any public politics. "He'd watch the news once a day if we were watching as a family," said Nosayba.

Terrified by the crackdown in Ramses Square, Somaia called her father in Ireland to ask him what to do. Sheikh Hussein Mohammed Halawa remembers the Cairo streets as well as anyone who grew up there. "The metro is shut, there are no taxis, we don't know how to get out," Somaia told her father in panic. "Go into the mosque, you'll be safe in there," he advised. Fatima, Somaia, Omaima and Ibrahim ran into the Al-Fath mosque, which sits next to Ramses Square, part of an estimated group of 400 protestors who sought shelter in what became a makeshift hospital and morgue.

"When we entered the mosque there was shooting, so the mosque doors were closed. The people inside would only open the doors the slightly to let you in," says Somaia. "We didn't know how long we would stay or what would happen." As the 7 pm curfew took hold, the protestors barricaded themselves inside the mosque.

Unlike the Rabaa Square protests, video and eyewitness testimony from the scene indicates that some protestors came armed to the Ramses Square protest —but that this number remained a small minority of the people there. Security services who stormed the mosque claimed that they were met with gunfire, although this is under dispute. Witnesses at the scene told the local Daily News Egypt that gunfire began around 1:30 pm on Saturday, and that "gunfire was exchanged between security forces and protestors...after forces asked the demonstrators to vacate the mosque." The Daily Telegraph reported that "local television stations broadcast live footage of soldiers firing assault rifles at the minaret." An Amnesty International researcher who was present at the scene said there was "no way the protestors could have shot at the security forces as they were all locked inside the inner part of the mosque."

Inside the mosque, Somaia, Ibrahim and Omaima huddled against one another as tear gas began to pour through the windows. "People began fainting," says Somaia, who says she witnessed one woman die from asphyxiation. Security forces used sound bombs as they broke through the barricade and into the mosque. "I'm sure there were intentions to kill us inside," she says. Egyptian security forces arrested everyone inside. Ibrahim had wrapped his hand in a t-shirt, having been shot in the hand with a rubber bullet, for which he received no medical treatment. Somaia recounts how Omaima's abaya and hijab were torn by people outside the mosque who assaulted her. They were among 30 people packed into a van designed to fit ten.

What followed for the Halawas was three months of detention, first inside a military camp, then Tora prison. Somaia describes how the 30 women who remained under arrest were held together in one cell, "in a room that looks like a cage, it was underground. It felt like a grave," she said. They could hear the anguished screams of hundreds of male inmates who had been packed into in an overcrowded cell. "The men were screaming," she says, "they were shouting 'either kill us or take us out of this room.'"

The 30 women were eventually moved to Al Qanatar women's prison, where Somaia speaks of being held in another room for two months without ever being allowed to leave. "I thought they would bury me alive there," she said. After one visit to Ibrahim during his detention, Nosayba, his lawyer, told journalists that he had been stripped naked and forced to stand against a wall for hours before being beaten with a metal pole.

Fatima, Somaia and Omaima were suddenly freed in November 2013, without warning or explanation. The Irish consulate issued an emergency travel document for Ibrahim, thinking that he, too, would be freed, after his passport had mysteriously vanished during his time in detention. The family, aided by the London-based human rights group Reprieve, speak of a reluctance by the Egyptian authorities to accept Ibrahim's Irish nationality, despite his never having held any form of Egyptian ID. He is also listed on court documents as being 18 at the time of his arrest, despite the renewed travel document proving that he wouldn't turn 18 until Dec.13 2013, making him a minor at the time of his imprisonment.

Yet sadly Halawa is not unique in this case: the court document states that defendants 1 to 9 "have attained the age of 15 but not yet reached 18 years of age." They are charged with organizing "an illegal assembly of more than five persons," and therefore intentionally endangering the public after conspiring to commit assault and damage public property, as well as interfering "with the work of public officers with violence and force." Article 80 of Egypt's 2014 constitution states that: "No child may be held criminally responsible or detained except in accordance with the law and the time frame specified therein. Legal aid shall be provided to children, and they shall be detained in appropriate locations separate from adult detention centers."

Halawa is not one of the nine listed as a minor in this case, despite being a minor at the time of arrest. This means that it is possible that more of the defendants were minors, and are now being tried and charged as adults—something that is illegal under international law. Amnesty International counted 12 minors total out of the 494 defendants, but there could be more still.

The charges for all 494 defendants are also confusing, given that the nature of a mass trial means that the court must prove that all the people in question were involved in the events of 16 and 17 August 2013. The charge sheet lists a long and detailed list of crimes, including damage to Azbakiyah police station and violating "the sanctity of the [Al-Fath] mosque, a place of worship for Muslims, for terrorist purposes." The charge sheet also argues that the protestors killed at least one man, Mahmoud Hussein Tae’ Ahmad, and wounded at least two others with "premeditation, deliberately and with intent." It also charges them with amassing illegally obtained firearms, weapons and firecrackers with intent to kill or harm. Rights groups that have analyzed the charges, however, say that it's not clear precisely how many were killed and injured, or whether the wounded were policemen, protestors, or simply witnesses to events. Amnesty International has also noted that the majority of the 100 witnesses against the defendants are policemen.

It also seems to defy judgment that a hearing could be subject to a rolling delay for a year and a half. "They don't want to release these people," said one Egyptian legal expert, who declined to be named due to the nature of their work. "This is the only trial for the events of Aug. 16, so it brings focus politically and with the media. After what happened at Raba'a, people just don't want to think about that day."

Egypt’s felony courts, which govern these kinds of cases, are only in session for one week of every month. This means that there are a limited number of sessions per year. Combined with an ever-increasing number of arrests that took place after the overthrow of Morsi in June 2013, this has created a considerable backlog. "Mohammed Soltan is case number 13,899 of 2013, and he was arrested on Aug. 27 that year," explains the legal expert, citing the example of another dual national awaiting trial in similar circumstances. "You can imagine by the end of 2013 what kind of caseload we were looking at: probably over 100,000. Of the 13,000 judges in Egypt, maybe two thirds are criminal court judges. So you have 8-9,000 judges for 100,000 cases."

The trial of the 494 invites questions about the independence of Egypt's judiciary, something that has happened often ever since President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi seized power. "The executive doesn't control the judiciary," explains the expert, "the judiciary has its own revenge agenda. After the Jan. 25 revolution in 2011, there was a funding cut, and through the constitutional declaration in 2012, then-president Morsi tried to reform the judiciary. Consequently, the goals are aligned within the judiciary and the police."

Egypt's courts have garnered international attention for the harsh sentences meted out, especially to members of the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood. On Feb. 2, a court upheld death sentences for 183 members of the Brotherhood for the deaths of 11 police officers during an attack on a police station in Kerdasa. Death sentences for 36 Muslim Brotherhood members were overturned on Feb. 12, including for the group's spiritual leader Mohamed Badie, but this doesn't mean they'll walk free. Excepting a radical shift in either policy or Egyptian politics, they are likely to serve out the remainder of their lives in prison.

Ibrahim Halawa's family is therefore desperate to release him immediately—fearing that if he stands trial, he could be given a death sentence. This has put them at odds with the Irish embassy at times, which has demanded that he be given a fair trial, rather than agitated for his release. "This isn't a country with a fair system, there's no justice in this country" says Nosayba Halawa. "I don't want to wait until he gets given a death sentence, or a life sentence, and then we have to go back and beg them to reduce it to 10 or 15 years. That's not justice."

Reprieve, for its part, has branded the trial a "mockery of justice," according to spokeswoman Maya Foa, who works on Halawa's case. She argues that "the authorities have zero interest in reversing the injustices of recent years, [instead] prolonging the utterly unjust two-year ordeal of a teenage boy and his 493 co-defendants. "

It is clear that the Irish embassy in Cairo is pushing hard for Halawa's release, although they remain tight-lipped about precisely what is happening behind closed doors. In a statement on Feb. 8., the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade said that "officials in Dublin and Cairo have been working actively on this case, and have been in ongoing and sustained contact with the Egyptian authorities. My department will continue to take all appropriate action to ensure Ibrahim’s welfare, and to seek a review of his case, his release and return to his family and his studies." The Irish Embassy in Cairo declined to give any more detailed comment on the case, for fear of jeopardizing Halawa's chances.

The problem, it seems, is what the Irish government can leverage to ensure Halawa's release. Their main exports to Egypt are meat and textiles, not arms, which is often what provides governments like Britain and America with clout in negotiations. Officials at the European Union say quietly that they have never approached this case using this kind of bargaining, which is perhaps the problem.

Halawa's case was discussed in the European Parliament on October 2014, and EU officials have met privately with the Egyptian authorities up to five times to discuss the case, saying that they prefer to save the real pressure for private meetings. The EU is Egypt's principle trading partner, although the Halawa case doesn't seem to be putting this at risk, save for some questions behind closed doors. Some embassies and diplomatic missions say that they are trying the "critical friend" approach with the new Egyptian regime, but where friendship stops and criticism begins appears to be decided on a case-by-case basis.

Halawa's fortunes are connected in many ways to the eventual outcome of the Al Jazeera case, where journalists Peter Greste, Mohammed Fahmy and Baher Mohammed were initially given 7- and 10-year sentences, respectively, for "aiding the Muslim Brotherhood" and "spreading false news." Halawa, like Greste and Fahmy, is subject to a new law introduced in November 2014, which allows foreign nationals detained in Egypt to stand trial in their home country. Greste's deportation to Australia on Feb. 1 raised the Halawa family's hopes, given Ibrahim isn't a dual-national like Fahmy, who recently renounced his Egyptian citizenship in the hope of deportation to Canada.

But the Feb. 12 retrial for Fahmy and Baher Mohammed showed that Fahmy was instead granted bail, at a cost of roughly $32,000, ahead of the March 8 sentencing rather than deportation. As he addressed the judge in the same Tora prison courtroom that Halawa has hoped so many times to enter, Fahmy spoke of how a senior Egyptian official told him that deportation was his only escape—only to find himself subject to another retrial. His family, and some commentators, have blamed the Canadian government for not putting enough pressure on the prosecutors and on the Egyptian government, resulting in what looked like a bungled effort to help Fahmy.

Given the high profile nature of the Al Jazeera case, this doesn't bode well for Halawa, whose plight has received far less international attention. His family fears that the case is now at a crossroads: without freeing him before the next trial date, he could be moved to another prison in Wadi El-Natrun, one with a reputation for even worse conditions than the already-infamous Tora.

But even if Halawa is released, 493 people will still be behind bars, and potentially awaiting trial for an indefinite period. Unlike the Al Jazeera trial or the fate of prominent activists like Alaa Abdel-Fatah, EU officials say that they aren't monitoring the Ramses Square trial, or pressuring the Egyptian authorities on any of the mass trials against Islamists. This, they say, is because the EU has no unified policy on political Islam, and any kind of external pressure on non-EU governments requires internal agreement on the issue. This means that the EU champions the rights of activists like Alaa al-Fattah, journalists like the Al Jazeera three, and foreign nationals classed as expressing their right to free speech like Halawa—but the 493 other people in the same case pass without comment.

As such, the Irish and European authorities have been careful to label Halawa as a prisoner of conscience, but sidestep the context of the Muslim Brotherhood. There is no evidence that Halawa himself is remotely political, while other members of his family frame their connection to the group as being pro-democracy and pro-human rights, especially in the context of outrage at the removal of Mohammed Morsi from power. For a variety of personal and perhaps tactical reasons, they are reluctant to say openly whether they are supporters, or members, of the Brotherhood.

Longstanding suspicions that the patriarch, Sheikh Hussein Mohammed Halawa, is a prominent Brotherhood figure in Europe are outlined in a leaked U.S. Embassy cable from 2006, due to his position at a body called the European Council for Fatwa and Research. Nosayba says that if the Egyptian authorities were using Ibrahim as leverage to punish their father for his affiliations, Sheikh Halawa would be on the next plane to Egypt. "If Dad knew that he could come here and they would arrest him, and so let Ibrahim go, he would do it," she says, sitting on the sofa in the family home in Cairo. The family is extremely close, and she describes how the ordeal has affected their father. "I saw my Dad when they took my sisters, and frankly I thought he wouldn't wake up in the morning. He's a strong person but he's a very emotional person as well," she says. "I never in my whole life saw him crying that much."

Halawa's inclusion in the trial has shone a light on a case that otherwise risks being the latest in a string of tragic numbers: 494, 529, 683. The amounts have become so large that they feel almost cartoonishly unreal, while the people behind these numbers are shuffled through the opaque inner workings of the Egyptian court system. Nosayba says that Ibrahim has taken to tying a sheet around his bed so that the privacy can allow him to feel like one person again, instead of one out of 494. But as the case seems to drag on without end, the numbers have become paramount: 494 people, 18 months of waiting, one trial, one space in one courtroom. One prisoner whose family in Ireland still hasn't taken his 2013 exam timetable down from his bedroom wall.