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"No confidence" in prison health care, say lawyers for Dr Issam Bassalat

Update - Dr Bassalat's bail application was rejected by Judge Michael Ranaghan at a further hearing on Monday 1 November. The judge ruled that Dr Bassalat's heart attack did not amount to a change in circumstances. The bail application will now go to the High Court.

There were heated exchanges in a court in Northern Ireland on Monday over an ongoing bail application by Dr Issam Bassalat, who is in Maghaberry Prison awaiting trial on "terrorism" charges. Dr Bassalat has suffered a heart attack in prison.  The court heard that he is at "substantial excess risk of further cardio-vascular events, including death."

Dr Bassalat's bail application initially came before District Judge Michael Ranaghan at Dungannon Magistrates Court on Friday 8 October. The prosecutor opposed bail and argued that Dr Bassalat's circumstances had not changed sufficiently since a previous application was refused to allow the fresh application to considered. Solicitor Peter Corrigan, representing Dr Bassalat, claimed that prosecution papers served since the previous bail application demonstrated that the court had previously been given "erroneous, incorrect information" by the prosecutor and that it was "absolutely absurd" to say that the serving of the papers did not amount to a change of circumstances. The hearing was adjourned until 13 October to allow further legal information to be obtained.

The following day Dr Bassalat suffered a heart attack and was taken to hospital. He had a stent inserted and was told that part of his heart muscles were dead. He returned to Maghaberry Prison on Tuesday 12 October . The court was told on 13 October that Dr Bassalat was not "physically fit" to appear by video link. The court was later told by the prosecutor that Dr Bassalat had been placed in 14 day covid isolation "within the old hospital wing" of the prison. Conditions there are understood to be better than in Foyle House, a part of the prison where Dr Bassalat had been housed for covid isolation on a previous occasion, causing him to embark on a hunger strike that triggered a solidarity hunger strike by prisoners across Northern Ireland.

Further hearings were held on 18 and 20 October, with Dr Bassalat's lawyers complaining of "delay, delay, delay." They argued that the undisputed fact that Dr Bassalat had suffered a heart attack was sufficient to establish that his circumstances had changed, without any need for further details. But Judge Michael Ranaghan insisted that he could not decide on whether there had been a change of circumstances without seeing medical reports. Time was set aside on Monday 25 October for the Judge - this time sitting at Craigavon Magistrates Court - to receive an update on progress in obtaining the reports.

On 25 October the court heard that medical reports had been provided by two hospital doctors. Solicitor Peter Corrigan told the court that Dr Bassalat was at "substantial excess risk of further cardio-vascular events, including death." He said that Dr Bassalat had been locked in his cell after his heart attack for seven hours, in severe pain, before being taken to hospital. He also noted that Dr Bassalat had already suffered 10 months of pain awaiting spinal surgery and afterwards was "deprived of post-operative care."

The court heard from Dr Bassalat's legal team that the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism was intervening in the case, and that the prison ombudsman was investigating the prison's handling of Dr Bassalat's heart attack. The prosecutor said that the complaints about the prison "are not accepted."

Judge Ranaghan said that he still required a medical report from the prison before he could decide whether there had been a change in Dr Bassalat's circumstances. This led to heated exchanges between the judge and Peter Corrigan, with the judge saying at one point: "I don't care about the UN." Peter Corrigan said he would seek a report from the prison, but that he had no confidence in the care provided by the prison and would likely also commission an independent medical report.

"What the f*ck is Issam doing here?"

Peter Corrigan also argued that, aside from the medical issues, the serving of the prosecution papers constituted a change of circumstances. He said that Dr Bassalat had been "badgered" by MI5 agent Dennis McFadden into attending a meeting, allegedly of the New IRA, that is central to the prosecution case. He added that when Dr Bassalat turned up at the meeting someone said: "what is he doing here?" SACC understands that transcripts of recordings secretly made of the meeting by MI5 show that a member of the Saoradh political party, allegedly also a senior member of the New IRA, said: "What the f*ck is Issam doing here?"

Peter Corrigan also said that the word "project", which occurs in the transcript of another bugged meeting and is claimed by the prosecutor to have a sinister meaning, is said by Dr Bassalat to be a reference to a joint project for a book about Irish and Palestinian prisoners.

The charges against Dr Bassalat are the result of undercover police and MI5 operations that spanned Scotland and Northern Ireland and would, because of their nature, inevitably have involved cooperation with security and intelligence agencies overseas. Dr Bassalat was arrested at Heathrow airport on 22 August 2020 and charged two days later with preparing acts of terrorism by attending a meeting of a proscribed organisation, to which a further charge was added in May 2021, based on the same set of facts, of encouraging terrorism.

Nine other people, all members of the Saoradh political party, were arrested at various locations within a few days of Dr Bassalat's arrest and all are facing terrorism-related charges. The Police Service of Northern Ireland said at the time that the arrests were part of an operation dubbed "Arbacia", directed against the New IRA and involving "partners such as MI5, Police Scotland, An Garda Siochana and the Metropolitan Police Service".

The charges against Dr Bassalat all arise from his entrapment by Dennis McFadden, who was named in open court last year as an MI5 agent. McFadden has subsequently disappeared. His role in MI5 has never been denied. SACC understands that prosecutors do not intend to call him as a witness.

Dr Bassalat is a British citizen and lives and works in Edinburgh. At the time of his arrest he was returning early from his honeymoon to seek treatment for the spinal problem that was to prove so troublesome to him in prison.

Dr Bassalat's bail application will be back before Justice Michael Ranaghan at Dungannon Magistrates Court on Monday 1 November.

Photo of Dr Issam Bassalat © Bassalat family, reproduced by permission