We must defend every individual’s freedom of expression

Respecting everyone’s human rights means defending a person’s right to hold views even if we don’t agree with them, writes Colm O’Gorman

People in Ireland have an almost innate feel for the value and importance of human rights. Maybe it is a legacy of our past, but it is notable.

Last year, Ireland marked the centenary of the 1916 Rising. It was a foundational moment for our State, setting forth the principles which would underpin the Republic that was yet to be born.

It was a time when people fought and died for freedom. On April 24, 1916, standing on the steps of the GPO, Pádraig Pearse proclaimed a Republic that “guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens”.

For the past four years, a young Irish citizen has been imprisoned in truly awful conditions in Egypt. Ibrahim Halawa was 17 when he was arrested, and he turned 21 before Christmas last year still imprisoned in terrible conditions in an Egyptian prison cell.

Let me be really clear. Ibrahim was detained solely for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. He committed no crime, either under international law or Egyptian law.

This is not a matter of opinion. It is based on Amnesty researchers’ eyewitness accounts and our detailed review of the prosecution case against him. It is a matter of indisputable fact. It is why Amnesty International declared him a prisoner of conscience.

He was subjected to a grossly unfair mass trial, itself an appalling violation of his human rights. On September 18, Ibrahim was finally acquitted of all charges brought against him. As we have always known, he is an innocent man.

All Ibrahim did was take part in a peaceful protest in August 2013. He did no more than people in Ireland do when protesting a great many things.

Ibrahim and his sisters, along with hundreds of thousands of others, took to the streets to protest a military coup which had overthrown the democratically elected government of Egypt.

The response of the Egyptian military and security forces was brutal and bloody. They killed more protesters in a 24-hour period than we’ve seen anywhere else in the world in recent history, including the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

When Ibrahim and his sisters feared for their safety in the face of the onslaught from the security forces, they sought sanctuary in the Al Fath mosque. The security forces stormed the mosque and all four siblings were arrested.

While his sisters were released on bail after three months in detention, Ibrahim was one of many, many thousands of peaceful protestors arbitrarily detained.

He faced a mass trial alongside 493 co-defendants, and endured more than 30 trial delays and adjournments. Up to the day of his acquittal, Ibrahim had spent 1,472 days in prison.

He is still detained in Egypt as he awaits the conclusion of a bureaucratic release process. Soon, he’ll finally be free to come home. Home to Dublin where he was born and home to his parents, sisters and friends. I hope that he’ll have the time and support he needs to recover from his horrific ordeal and rebuild his life.

When I heard the news of Ibrahim’s acquittal, I was in a meeting with Amnesty colleagues from across Europe. Many had actively campaigned to secure Ibrahim’s release.

It was a joyous moment, shared by the thousands of people here in Ireland and around the world who had worked for his release. We hoped for that day, and put that hope into action by campaigning for his freedom.

It was a moment for celebration. But not everyone has celebrated. Some commentators have argued that because of Ibrahim’s perceived opinion or beliefs, he is less deserving of the rights and protections set out in international human rights law, the same freedoms which underpin the foundation of our Republic.

Everyone has a right to freedom of expression. We are all free to think and believe what we want. The fact that someone might disagree with our views does not restrict our right to hold them. It is only when we commit or incite abusive acts that we lose that unqualified right.

Some commentators have even argued that they are courageously speaking out against an erosion of so-called “Western values”.

They seem ignorant of the fact that their attacks on Ibrahim run counter to the very values they purport to defend.

An editorial in this paper on September 19 demanded that Ibrahim publicly clarify his views, which would “hopefully… allow him lead a full and happy life in Ireland”.

The piece assumes a connection between Ibrahim and the Muslim Brotherhood and argues that there’s some sort of requirement on Ibrahim to ‘justify’ his views. To be clear, I have no idea if Ibrahim has a connection with the Muslim Brotherhood or any other political party or group, either in Egypt or in Ireland.

International human rights law is unequivocal. People are free to think and believe what they wish. The right to freedom of expression can be limited only when those beliefs are used to commit, justify or incite human rights abuses or hatred.

It is only then that one loses that unqualified right. There is no evidence of Ibrahim having done this. I don’t know Ibrahim’s personal or political views. But, I stand by his right to hold them, whatever they may be.

Indeed, the media should be to the forefront of supporting the freedom of expression. In this case, a then 17-year-old boy was imprisoned for more than four years for peacefully standing up for what he believes.

This Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its people.

This cannot be dependent on a subjective examination of someone’s opinions or political views to determine if they are “acceptable”.

To suggest that this might be necessary or in any way appropriate is a
dangerous and disgraceful attack on human rights and the values upon which this Republic was built.

To make such a demand of an innocent young Irish man whose human rights have been so gravely violated and who has endured such horrific treatment is cruel and shameful.

Colm O’Gorman is executive director of Amnesty International Ireland

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