A bail application by Dr Issam Hijjawi Bassalat has been rejected. Issam Bassalat is a Palestinian doctor from Edinburgh. He has been held in Northern Ireland's Maghaberry Prison since August while awaiting trial on a "terrorism" charge that his lawyer says is the result of entrapment. He is in severe pain as a result of a spinal injury and would have sought treatment in Scotland if his application had been granted.
Dr Bassalat's bail application was rejected yesterday (Monday 21 December) by High Court judge Mrs Justice Keegan. She had already rejected a previous bail application from Dr Bassalat when it came before the High Court on 30 September.
The bail application was based both on on the Crown's delay in progressing the case and on Dr Bassalat's medical condition. Dr Bassalat suffers from a slipped disk which has deteriorated sharply during his time in prison, leading to a neurological problem that is causing extreme pain in his right leg. He now needs crutches to walk and has great difficulty with daily tasks such as dressing. He needs spinal surgery.
While it is not suggested that Dr Bassalat's incarceration has caused the deterioration in his condition, it is clear that he would be able to manage his pain and mobility issues much more easily outside the prison environment and that more treatment options would be available to him. In particular, if released he would have been able to obtain an appointment in Scotland for the spinal surgery he needs.
The prison GP has said that there is nothing further he can do for Dr Bassalat. Yet Mrs Justice Keegan ruled that he "should be able to avail of treatment within the prison protocols."
Dr Bassalat's barrister Brenda Campbell QC said:
"He is a man of impeccable good character who has on an annual basis passed such checks as are necessary for the purposes of his medical practising certificate, and who has also very publicly for a long time committed himself to political struggles with a peaceful path."
She told the court:
"Within the prison system they have really reached the end of the road in terms of trying to make him more comfortable. He requires surgery, he is experiencing muscle wastage as a result of what he is very much concerned about is nerve damage that may be permanent."
"We have every reason to believe his ability to navigate the Scottish healthcare system will lead to an expedited appointment with his spinal consultant, and an expedited appointment for surgery, even within the current pandemic."
Dr Bassalat is one of ten people arrested in August as part of "Operation Arbacia" - a combined police and MI5 operation directed against the New IRA (a banned organisation in the UK). He faces a single charge arising out of his attendance at an alleged New IRA meeting. Dr Bassalat's solicitor, Gavin Booth, says that Dr Bassalat was entrapped by a man now known to be an MI5 agent into attending what he believed would be a legitimate public meeting where he was to provide an analysis of the situation in Palestine. The meeting was bugged by MI5. Gavin Booth told Channel 4 News in October:
"Everything that’s contained within the transcripts and the recordings is about Palestine, is about peaceful and democratic change. There’s nothing in the transcripts from Dr Bassalat that would support violence in any way."
It is perfectly clear that Dr Bassalat isn't a danger to anyone and will not attempt to flee from justice. There is no valid reason for the court to deny his bail application. His continued incarceration serves no other purpose than to conceal from the public the fact that his arrest - and perhaps the whole of Operation Arbacia - was of much less significance than early reports suggested. Mrs Justice Keegan's decision points to an undue sensitivity to these matters. Courts are meant serve the interests of justice, not the interests of the state.
As a result of Mrs Justice Keegan's decision, Dr Bassalat's medical care remains the responsibility of Maghaberry Prison. It is a responsibility that the prison is evidently unable to meet, placing it in potential breach of its obligations under domestic and international law.