A court in Northern Ireland heard today, Wednesday 13 October, that Dr Issam Hijjawi Bassalat has suffered a heart attack. Dr Bassalat was due to appear by video link at a case management hearing at Dungannon Magistrates Court, along with nine other defendants arrested last year as a result of Operation Arbacia. The case hinges on evidence that lawyers say was obtained as a result of "entrapment" by MI5 agent Dennis McFadden.
Dr Bassalat is a British citizen of Palestinian origin and has been living in Edinburgh since 2005, working as a doctor. His 9 co-defendants are members of the political party Saoradh. They are all charged with various terrorism-related offences allegedly connected with activities of the "New IRA".
Dr Bassalat has been held on remand in Maghaberry Prison since August 2020. On Saturday evening he was taken to hospital suffering from chest pain. Barrister Joe Brolly told the court that Dr Bassalat had been treated for a heart attack and had returned on Tuesday to Maghaberry, where he has been placed in isolation for 14 days as a precaution against the spread of covid. He said that Dr Bassalat was not physically fit to appear at the hearing.
After his return to prison on Tuesday, Dr Bassalat spoke to a family member and told them that he was keen to appear at today's hearing. He also said that he was unhappy with being held in the prison's isolation unit as the facilities there are poorer than elsewhere in the prison and are likely to hamper his recovery.
Dr Bassalat has previous experience of isolation at Maghaberry. He was placed there on admission to Maghaberry last year while suffering from severe back pain which was eventually resolved by spinal surgery in June. He went on hunger strike in protest at his isolation, triggering a solidarity hunger strike by republican prisoners across Northern Ireland. Isolation is not automatic for prisoners returning from an external hospital. Justice Minister Naomi Long said last year that decisions on isolation are taken by the prison Governor. Dr Bassalat has had two covid vaccinations and was not placed in isolation after his operation in June.
Today's court hearing was intended, besides dealing with case management issues, to continue dealing with a bail application by Dr Bassalat that had come before the court on Friday 8 October. The prosecutor argued then that Dr Bassalat's circumstances had not changed sufficiently since his last bail application for a fresh application to be considered.
Peter Corrigan, representing Dr Bassalat, said on Friday it was "absolutely absurd" to claim there had been no change in circumstances. He said that at the previous hearing, which was held before the file setting out the prosecution case was available, "the court was told erroneous, incorrect information" and that facts thrown in were "totally prejudicial and wrong."
He described Dr Bassalat as a man "66 years of age, never in trouble in his life."
The court was unable to reach a decision regarding whether the threshold for a fresh bail application had been met as further information was needed, including a transcript of the judge's ruling at Dr Bassalat's previous bail hearing. The hearing was therefore adjourned to be continued today, Wednesday, along with a scheduled case management hearing for all ten co-defendants.
Peter Corrigan told the court today that it was an "absurd position" to claim that there was a risk of Dr Bassalat absconding. He pointed out that Dr Bassalat's main concern, as could be seen from family court proceedings in Edinburgh, was to maintain contact with his children.
Today's hearing was described by the judge as the "first proper case management hearing."
Barrister Joe Brolly noted some concerns surrounding the case. He said there were "difficulties about the confidentiality" of consultations between lawyers and their clients, as they could be overheard by prison staff.
He said that the prosecution file, which relates to all 10 of the co-defendants, contains 15367 pages of evidence and 705 hours of viewing and listening. He estimated that he would need 63 weeks to read the evidence.
Two other lawyers noted that they were "a good bit behind" Joe Brolly.
The judge directed that case management meetings should be held every month to expedite progress towards a committal hearing.
He accepted that dealing with Dr Bassalat's bail application should be prioritised in view of his medical condition. A hearing to deal with this has been scheduled for 12 noon on Monday 18 October.
Dr Bassalat has recently appealed to human rights groups to monitor his case.
Photo: Maghaberry Prison © Michael Cooper/Alamy Stock Photo