Special Report (Wrongful Convictions): When innocence is not enough

Today marks two years since Ibrahim Halawa, an Irish teenager, was jailed in Egypt after he was caught up in a political protest. For two years, he has been due to stand trial for his alleged role in the violence that erupted during the protest. If convicted, he could face the death penalty. The details of Ibrahim’s detention and alleged torture are harrowing but, if he is indeed innocent, it wouldn’t be the first time someone has fallen foul of a justice system, writes Kelly O’Brien.

Special Report (Wrongful Convictions): When innocence is not enough

The family of Ibrahim Halawa, an Irish citizen currently imprisoned in Egypt, take to the streets of Dublin today to mark the second anniversary of his incarceration.

The group will congregate at the Spire on O’Connell St at 5pm and plan to hand out 730 flowers — one for each day Ibrahim has spent in prison.

“We’re fearful people will forget about Ibrahim and what he’s going through so we want to keep raising awareness and we want to keep telling people the reality of what’s happening,” said Somaia Halawa, one of Ibrahim’s older sisters.

“There has been a lot of coverage in the media over the last two years, which we’re very grateful for, but we just hope it keeps going and we can keep putting pressure on the Irish Government.”

Ibrahim, a 19-year-old student from Firhouse in Co Dublin, travelled to Egypt with his sisters Somaia, 27, Fatima, 23, and Omaima, 21, in June 2013.

Photo: Amnesty International

The siblings, who are of Egyptian descent, have relatives in the country and would regularly travel there in summer. Shortly after their arrival in 2013, the removal of the elected president, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, sparked a series of violent clashes between the new government and supporters of the deposed leader. More than 800 people were killed in the protest, according to Human Rights Watch.

Ibrahim and his sisters were caught up in one of the clashes and fled to a mosque for safety. The mosque was then surrounded by protestors and the army and, after 17 hours, was raided.

Ibrahim and his sisters were all arrested. The three women were held for three months at a women’s prison before they were granted bail in November 2013 and freed. Ibrahim is still incarcerated and is awaiting trial.

“That was the last time I saw Ibrahim, in November 2013,” said Somaia. “It’s very hard to find out how Ibrahim is and how he’s feeling. He’s in one of the worst prisons in Egypt and he’s being treated really, really badly. He has no basic rights, he’s not even allowed to send letters or to defend himself.

“It’s been very hard, very difficult for all of us. We don’t trust anything at this stage. The situation is getting worse and worse.”

Somaia said Ibrahim has been beaten in prison and finds it hard to keep fighting for his release given that she has long since lost her faith in the Government’s ability to help her brother.

Ibrahim with his sisters

“I’ve seen my brother’s life taken from him for the past two years,” she said. “He’s innocent and the Irish Government knows he’s innocent and yet they’re saying they can’t intervene in the judicial process.

“You see in the media, different politicians talking about justice and human rights but reality is a completely different story. They are not practising what they are preaching at all.

“The Irish Government knows Ibrahim is an Irish citizen, they know he’s innocent, they know what he’s been through and they know what might be ahead for him.

“And yet you have them coming out and saying it’s not the time yet. When is the time? When Ibrahim loses his life? Or decides to commit suicide? Or when something happens to him?”

Somaia and her family are clinging on to the hope that Ibrahim’s situation will soon be resolved, despite the fact his trial has been postponed eight times.

“He’s never going to be given a fair trial because you’re talking about a military coup,” said Somaia. “There’s no rule, there’s nothing, and it really does just depend on whatever judge you get.

“This has already changed Ibrahim’s life completely but it will also have a big impact on him when he gets out, if he gets out. It will take him a long time, years, to recover from this and it will be very hard for him.”

While Somaia is critical of the Government, she does acknowledge they have played an important role in Ibrahim’s situation so far.

After an intervention by Irish authorities, the teenager secured a transfer from an overcrowded, unsanitary detention centre to a low-security prison where conditions were a little better. After almost a year, Ibrahim was moved to the notorious Tora prison where, he said, men in balaclavas came into his cell and beat him with chains.

Another intervention from the Government saw Ibrahim moved to a more secure wing of the facility. In addition, officials from the Irish embassy visit the Dubliner regularly. So far, they have visited Ibrahim more than 40 times.

Ibrahim is due to stand trial on October 4. The best- case scenario, according to the Government, is that he is acquitted or that receives a relatively light sentence that equates to the time he has already served.

The worst case scenario is a longer sentence, in which the Government believes it would have a 60-day window to try and intervene.

Meanwhile, Amnesty International is also fighting for the Irish teenager’s release.

“Amnesty International researchers who were on the ground have clear evidence that Ibrahim did not carry out the crimes he is accused of,” said Colm O’Gorman, executive director of Amnesty International Ireland. “Ibrahim and his family’s appalling ordeal must end and he should be immediately and unconditionally released and allowed to return home to Ireland.”

Gerry Conlon ‘victorious’ after wrongful conviction

One of the most publicised miscarriages of justice to have ever involved an Irishman was the incarceration of Gerry Conlon, one of the Guildford Four, who was wrongfully convicted of being a Provisional IRA bomber.

Conlon, who had grown up in Belfast, moved to England when he was 20 years old to look for work. That same year, in 1974, two bombs were detonated at two pubs in Guildford, Surrey, in the southwest of London.

The first explosion killed four British soldiers and one civilian and injured 65 others. By the time the second explosion went off, the second pub had already been evacuated.

In the aftermath of the attack, which occurred at the height of the troubles in the North, the Metropolitan Police were put under severe pressure to catch those responsible.

A few weeks later, Gerry Conlon, Paul Hill, Paddy Armstrong, and Carole Richardson were falsely accused of the crime and became known as the Guildford Four. Days after these arrests, police also arrested Gerry’s father and aunt and members of her family. These then became known as the Maguire Seven.

The Guildford Four were sentenced to life in prison for the bombings, while the Maguire Seven were given various sentences ranging from four to 14 years for providing bomb-making materials.

Gerry continued to claim he was innocent of the crime and said police had tortured him into making a false confession.

Fifteen years after they were first imprisoned, the Guildford Four were set free. It was found that police had fabricated the hand-written interrogation notes used in the conviction and had held back evidence which proved Gerry could not have carried out the attack.

Two years later, the Maguire Seven were also exonerated, though this was 11 years too late for Gerry’s father, who had died in prison.

After his release, Conlon wrote a book called Proved Innocent and became the main character in the 1993 film In the Name of the Father, in which he was played by Daniel Day-Lewis.

But after his release from prison, Conlon found it hard to reacclimatise to life on the outside and his mental health suffered greatly. He eventually recovered, however, and became a notable campaigner against miscarriages of justice worldwide.

Last year, Gerry died at his home in Belfast at the age of 60 after a lengthy battle with lung cancer.

At his funeral, high-profile solicitor and human rights activist Gareth Peirce, who represented members of the Guildford Four and Maguire Seven, told mourners Conlon was a “victorious human being” who had defeated a mighty foe.

Death sentence couple Peter Pringle and Sunny Jacobs helping others to heal

They may have an astonishing 32 years of wrongful imprisonment between them, but Dubliner Peter Pringle and his American wife Sunny Jacobs don’t want to waste time thinking about it.

They have long since dismissed their anger and bitterness and have dedicated their lives to helping others deal with life after prison.

The couple married after both were released, having been sentenced to death and having served lengthy periods behind bars.

Peter spent 15 years in prison in Portlaoise for his alleged involvement in the deaths of two members of An Garda Síochána in 1980. He was sentenced to death — a sentence that was overturned in 1995.

Sunny spent 17 years in prison in Florida after the driver of a car she was travelling in shot and killed a highway patrolman and his Canadian constable friend.

Her partner Jesse Tafero and their two children — a nine-year-old boy and a 10-month-old girl — were also passengers in the car. Both Sunny and Jesse were convicted of murder and sentenced to death.

In 1990, Jesse was executed in an astonishingly gruesome way. He was strapped into an electric chair which malfunctioned. He had to be electrocuted three times in a process that reportedly took 13 minutes, during which he caught fire, before he was officially pronounced dead.

Two years later, Sunny’s conviction was reversed on appeal and she was released from prison. She came out to a completely different world Her partner was dead; her parents had been killed in a plane crash; her son had a child of his own; her daughter had tried to kill herself after her father’s horrific death and had been placed in a school for children with emotional and behavioural problems.

In addition to her problems adjusting to her new and tumultuous family situation, Sunny had difficulty acclimatising back into society in general.

“It was very difficult. I couldn’t get a job. Who was going to hire a 45-year-old woman who has no job experience except being in prison?” she said, speaking at the Irish Innocence Project’s recent Wrongful Conviction Conference. “So I taught yoga because that’s what I knew how to do because I did yoga and meditation to get through my time sentenced to death.

“When I met Peter I was a bit amazed to hear he did yoga and meditation too, this big Irish guy, because I’d been to Northwestern University where they had the first gathering of the exonerated people and nobody told me they did yoga and meditation. We ended up getting together and become part of each other’s healing process.”

The couple are now married and have dedicated their lives to helping those who have been wrongfully incarcerated, turning their picturesque west Galway home into the world’s first sanctuary for exonerees.

“Before we even met each other, each of us had a conviction that something needed to be done to help people, exonerees, after they were released,” said Peter.

“We agreed what we wanted to do was establish some means of helping other exonerees to overcome their difficulties because, you see, we were very fortunate in that each of us, and together, have let go of our anger and our bitterness, our disappointment and have entered into an area where we can live in the spirit of forgiveness and healing and love and caring.”

Together the couple set up The Sunny Centre, where exonerees can stay, for free, and be among people with similar experiences who can help them begin their healing process. Sunny said they are happy to provide this service, but that more help should be available.

“There’s no help. There’s no help at all,” said Sunny. “If you committed the crime you get help but if you’re innocent there is no help. And I think help should be made available to people. In the meantime we started what we call The Sunny Centre and we started having people coming to the house.”

“It’s a nice, peaceful, healthy place to be and we understand, so nobody has to explain anything to us or pretend that they’re OK.”

For further details, see www.sunnyandpeter.com.

Seven years stolen from innocent man jailed for rape he didn’t commit

In 2006, a young American man was falsely convicted of kidnapping, rape, assault, robbery, and false imprisonment and given a life sentence for crimes he didn’t commit

Uriah Courtney was called a predator, a rapist, and a monster, among other things, and was convicted despite being at work when the alleged crimes occurred — he had spent the day with two other workers who confirmed this alibi.

Speaking in Dublin at the recent Wrongful Conviction Conference hosted by the Irish Innocence Project, Uriah explained the events that led to his imprisonment.

A 16-year-old girl in California, US, was sexually assaulted by a man who grabbed her from behind. The teen said she had seen a man in a truck staring at her shortly before the attack and suspected he was her assailant.

Uriah’s stepfather owned a truck resembling the one described, while Uriah himself resembled the physical description of the man. His photo was shown to the girl and, though she said she was not 100% sure, identified Uriah as her attacker.

In the meantime, Uriah had travelled to Texas to meet a boy he had just found out was his son.

“While I was out there, DNA test confirmed that he was my son,” Uriah said. “The day after that I proposed to his mother and asked her to marry me and she said yes and then the following day the house was raided and I was dragged out of the house in handcuffs.”

Despite a strong alibi and inconclusive DNA results, Uriah found himself going through a trial.

“I had to sit there every day and face the jurors, the looks of disgust on their faces,” he said. “I was called a sexual predator, a rapist, a monster, and it was horrible. I’ll never forget the day the jury came back with a guilty verdict.”

It was four years before Uriah was allowed to have visitors. Even then, as a registered sex offender, he was only allowed to visit with those over 18.

“It was when I learned that I really began to lose all hope because never holding my son, at least until he was 18, was more than I could bear,” he said.

In 2010, Uriah was visited by representatives of the Californian Innocence Project. They had heard his case and wanted to help. Two years later, more DNA tests were carried out on the victim’s clothing — these results matched a white male who lived just 5km from the crime scene and resembled Uriah.

In the summer of 2013, seven years after he was imprisoned, Uriah was released and exonerated. He went home to his parents and, a few months later, was able to see his son again. He describes it as one of the best days of his life.

But Uriah’s struggles didn’t end there. Having been away from the world for so long, he found it hard to complete the simplest of tasks.

Movingly, he describes the day he was released from prison. His parents took him to a store to get some necessities and Uriah “got stuck” looking for dental floss — there were so many types and flavours that he just didn’t know what to do.

“I wasn’t used to having the ability to exercise so much freedom of choice,” he said

After his release, Uriah spent some time in the west of Ireland at a centre to rehabilitate recent exonorees. Now, he spends his time working as a writer — he intends to publish a book about his wrongful conviction.

Wrongful Conviction: Found guilty of raids despite a solid alibi

Mark Marku was in Ireland when an Albanian gang carried out a number of robberies in Greece — a fact which makes his arrest and subsequent conviction for these crimes all the more absurd according to his wife, Carlow woman Julie O’Reilly.

Julie has spent the last five years campaigning for her husband’s release and said that while there seems to be “no end in sight” to the ordeal, she’s not giving up until Mark is free.

Mark, originally from Albania, travelled to Crete with Julie in 2010. On this trip, Mark was arrested by local police and convicted, along with a number of other Albanian men, for a series of robberies. He was sentenced to 18 years in prison, despite documentary evidence such as affidavits, employment records, flight tickets and passport stamps that say he wasn’t even in the country the date some of the robberies occurred.

The Irish Innocence Project said no credible evidence was ever produced to convict Mark. They said the only evidence brought against Mark by the prosecution were witness identifications, despite the fact all the thieves wore balaclavas.

Court transcripts confirm the witnesses stated they did not see any faces and were basing the identifications on body shape and size — Mark is of medium build and height, like thousands of other men in Crete.

A week before the trial, the prosecution claimed a rubber glove with Mark’s DNA on it was found in a stolen car allegedly used in one of the robberies. This glove then mysteriously disappeared, while an expert at the trial said the supposed DNA evidence was flawed.

Mark’s situation is not completely devoid of hope, however — after an appeal his 18-year term was marginally reduced to 16 years and nine months. Then, this summer, Mark was granted temporary leave from prison, after his fourth application, and spent a few days with his wife.

He is now able to take leave from prison every two months and has been told he will be eligible for full-time parole next April.

These breakthroughs have been hard-won said Julie, who has “long lost all hope” that the Government would come to Mark’s aid.

“I would like to feel a bit more supported by my embassy and my state,” she said. “We went in to the original trial completely alone. We had no support.

“I went to my embassy and they told me there was nothing they could do. Mark’s embassy hasn’t been involved. He’s had one visit in five years from them and that was only three years after his arrest. So we’ve effectively been left to fend for ourselves.”

Julie said that since Mark is not an Irish citizen, the Government “washed their hands” of the situation.

“At this stage I don’t expect anything from them. They don’t even take care of their own citizens as you can see with that case in Egypt,” she said, drawing parallels between Mark and Ibrahim Halawa, the Irishman currently imprisoned in Egypt.

“As an Irish family, maybe we were a bit naïve but we expected some kind of support but it just wasn’t there.”

The Irish Innocence Project has been assisting Mark’s defence team for two years. The project continues to work with Mark’s Greek lawyer as the case is before the Greek Supreme Court.

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