Update: Dr Bassalat was released from isolation and transferred to Maghaberry Prison's Roe House (where Republican prisoners are held) on Tuesday 29 September, after enduring 14 days isolation on top of the 14 days he had already endured on admission to the prison.
Press Release from SACC
27 September 2020
SACC is becoming increasingly concerned for the welfare of Dr Issam Hijjawi Bassalat, an Edinburgh man who has been on hunger strike in Maghaberry Prison, Northern Ireland since 16 September. Dr Hijjawi is being held on remand having been arrested as a result of what his lawyer calls entrapment during a police and MI5 operation against the New IRA. Around 50 Republican prisoners have joined the hunger strike in solidarity with Dr Hijjawi, evoking memories of the 1981 hunger strike that led to the death of Bobby Sands and nine other prisoners. We have written to Northern Ireland's Justice Minister, Naomi Long, to express our concerns but have so far received no reply.
On admission to Maghaberry Dr Bassalat spent 14 days in isolation as a COVID19 prevention measure. He was then moved to Maghaberry's Roe House, where Republican prisoners are housed. He welcomed this move. Shortly afterwards he visited an outside hospital for an MRI scan. On return to prison on 16 September he was put back into isolation, which will last for a further 14 days unless the prison authorities change tack. At the end of this time he will have spent a total of 28 days in isolation, with only a very brief break. Dr Bassalat went on hunger strike in protest at this treatment. The combined effect of his medical complaints and the hunger strike are now causing his friends and family serious concern.
Dr Bassalat is of Palestinian origin and came to the UK in 1995 to work as a doctor before settling in Scotland in 2010. He now lives in Edinburgh and is a well-known and respected member of the Scottish Palestinian community. In 2017 he served as Chair of the Association of Palestinian Communities in Scotland. The organisation was replaced in 2018 by by the Scottish Palestinian Society. Dr Bassalat is a member of the new organisation but holds no office in it.
He was arrested at Heathrow airport on Saturday 22 August and taken to Belfast to face a terrorism charge arising from his attendance at an alleged meeting of the New IRA in Omagh on 19 July. According to his lawyer, he had been "pestered" into attending the meeting – which he believed would be a public meeting with an "exclusively political purpose" organised by the political party Saoradh - by an MI5 agent who has been named in court as Dennis McFadden. Dr Bassalat gave the meeting an update and political analysis of the situation in Palestine.
Dr Bassalat was refused bail by Dungannon Magistrates Court last Wednesday (16 September). His bail application will now be heard by the High Court. His lawyer told the Magistrates Court:
"My client speaks to numerous groups on Palestine. He went to the Saoradh Ard Fheis, he was certainly misled. Refusing bail drives a coach and horses through the presumption of innocence. There are issues of entrapment. Hopefully the prosecution sees sense and drops these charges."
Chris Williamson of the Left Legal Fighting Fund said:
"Dr Bassalat's hunger strike is an alarming symptom of something very wrong with the justice system in the north of Ireland, which appears to be beholden to the political goals of British intelligence services. Dr Bassalat should be immediately released from isolation."
SACC understands that Dr Bassalat has a heart condition and back problems as well as other medical issues. He was said by friends yesterday (Saturday 26 September) to be in good spirits but very worried about his health.
Richard Haley, Chair of SACC, said:
"I know Dr Bassalat as a colleague and ally in the political struggle for Palestinian rights. He’s very widely known and respected amongst people involved in that struggle in Scotland.
I’m extremely concerned by the involvement of MI5 in the investigation that led to his arrest, by the apparent long-term infiltration by MI5 of political activity in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and by claims made in court that Issam and his co-defendants were entrapped. Besides their impact on Issam, these apparent abuses are likely to have a chilling effect on political activity within the Palestinian community and more widely amongst campaigners for Palestinian rights.
I am also desperately concerned over the treatment that has driven Dr Bassalat to embark on a difficult and risky hunger strike. Of course the prison must protect other prisoners and staff from COVID19, but the steps it has taken appear to be ill-judged and disproportionate and to have been taken without sufficient regard for Dr Bassalat's medical condition."
Richard Haley has written on behalf of SACC to Justice Minister Naomi Long MLA. The email concluded:
"I hope that, as Minister for Justice, you will intervene to put an end to the crisis developing around Dr Hijjawi [Bassalat]. He is a remand prisoner and is entitled to a presumption of innocence. He is currently being held in conditions equivalent to those of a severely punitive prison regime simply because he had the misfortune to require a hospital visit. I am certain that a better and more balanced approach to the problem is possible."
There has so far been no response from the minister.
SACC is calling on the prison authorities to allow Dr Bassalat to return immediately to Roe House and to ensure that his medical needs are met. We hope that in due course he will be granted bail. But we believe that charges should never have been brought against him and that they should now be dropped.
- SACC campaigns against Britain's anti-terrorism laws and on a variety of other human rights issues.
- SACC issued a statement about the arrest of Issam Hijjawi on 4 September. It can be read at https://www.sacc.org.uk/press/2020/sacc-statement-arrest-issam-hijjawi
- On 24 September Derry City and Strabane District Council passed a resolution stating:
"Council notes with concern the additional distress being caused to the families ol prisoners currently on hunger strike In Maghaborry and Hydebank prisons because ot the (allure ol the Northern Ireland Office and prison authorities to provide regular updates on the prisoners' ongoing welfare and conditions. Council shall write to the NIO - calling on the Prison Service to release dally updates on the prisoners' status/condltlons.:
Council has concerns that the facility (Foyle House) and procedures currently being used at Maghaberry Prison, to house prisoners who arc being Isolated while being quarantined as a Covld precaution, Is not fit for purpose and poses a risk to the physical and mental health and welfare of prisoners.:
That a cross party and Independent delegation meet with the prisoners' families and their representatives to listen to their concerns In a bid to resolve these critical Issues and bring about an end to the current Hunger Strike.":
Councillor Gary Donnelly, proposing the motion, described the hunger strike as a "crisis situation." (https://www.derryjournal.com/news/uk-news/council-delegation-meet-hunger-strike-families-after-council-backs-donnelly-motion-2983250)
- Chris Williamson is the former MP for Derby North. The Left Legal Fighting Fund was set up with costs recovered in his High Court victory over the Labour Party and is supported by donations.