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Maghaberry Prison accused of 'neglect' over medical treatment of Palestinian doctor


Issam Hijjawi
Issam Hijjawi

Press Release from SACC, 9 November 2020

A Palestinian man held on remand in Maghaberry Prison has been in severe pain for weeks and now needs crutches as a result of the prison's neglect of his medical needs. A friend has described his treatment as tantamount to "torture."

Dr Issam Hijjawi Bassalat is a medical doctor of Palestinian origin who is now settled in Edinburgh. He was arrested in August as a result of what his lawyer calls entrapment during a police and MI5 operation against the New IRA. He is being held on remand in Maghaberry Prison in Northern Ireland, where he awaits trial on a charge of "terrorism" arising from his attendance at an alleged New IRA meeting.

According to his lawyer, he was "pestered" by a man called Dennis McFadden into attending what he was led to believe would be a public meeting where he was to provide an analysis of the situation in Palestine. Dennis McFadden has now been revealed in court to be an MI5 agent. The meeting that he persuaded Dr Bassalat to attend is alleged to have been a New IRA meeting and was bugged by MI5.

Dr Bassalat's lawyer Gavin Booth has seen the transcripts of the bugged meeting. He believes that if they were made public his client would be vindicated. Speaking to Channel 4 News about Dr Bassalat's contribution to the meeting, he said:

"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."

Dr Bassalat suffered a slipped disk in July, prior to his arrest. This has led to a neurological problem causing pain in his right leg. He attended hospital for an MRI scan on 15 September. On return to Maghaberry he was placed in isolation for 14 days in Foyle House as a covid19 prevention measure. As he had previously undergone 14 days of isolation on arrival at Maghaberry, this meant that he had to endure 4 weeks of isolation with only a short break. Foyle House is in a very run-down condition, does not provide adequate opportunities for the exercise that at that time still gave Dr Bassalat some relief from the pain, and is altogether unsuitable for someone with Dr Bassalat's medical problems. Dr Bassalat embarked on a hunger-strike in protest at his treatment, which caused around 50 Republican prisoners to go on hunger-strike in solidarity with him. The hunger strikes ended when Dr Bassalat was brought out of isolation.

Dr Bassalat's medical condition has subsequently continued to deteriorate. He has been in continuous severe pain for weeks despite taking painkillers. Exercise no longer gives him relief from the pain. He has difficulty dressing. And he now needs crutches in order to walk. It seems very probable that he will need surgery.

Dr Bassalat requested specialist medical care and was supported in this by a letter sent to the Governor of Maghaberry Prison on 27 September by SACC and other concerned organisations and individuals. He is now in contact with a neuro-surgeon. The neuro-surgeon needs access to medical records held by the prison before he can make a firm recommendation. The prison has so far failed to provide them. Its negligence is needlessly prolonging Dr Bassalat's suffering.

One of Dr Bassalat's Palestinian friends has described his treatment as tantamount to "torture". We believe that it is in any case a potential breach of the prohibition on torture or inhuman or degrading treatment under Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

SACC Chair Richard Haley wrote yesterday, 8 November, to the Governor of Maghaberry Prison asking him to ensure that Dr Bassalat is provided with prompt access to the medical care he needs.

The letter says:

"Dear Mr Kennedy,

Thank you for your email of 28 October regarding Dr Issam Hijawi Bassalat, a remand prisoner at HMP Maghaberry. I am writing to you again because Dr Bassalat is continuing to experience difficulties in accessing the medical care that he needs.

Dr Bassalat suffers from a neurological problem resulting from a disk prolapse. His condition continues to deteriorate. He is experiencing continuous severe pain and now needs crutches in order to walk. It seems probable that he will require surgery.

Dr Bassalat's neuro-surgeon needs access to medical records held by HMP Maghaberry in order to decide on the best course of action. I understand that the records have not yet been transferred to him. This ought to be simple matter. It appears that it has instead become a significant barrier to the timely provision of appropriate medical care to Dr Bassalat.

The continued neglect of Dr Bassalat's medical needs is causing him prolonged and needless suffering and could put his health in jeopardy. It also potentially puts HMP Maghaberry in breach of domestic and international law. Any failure to provide adequate health care is apt to create a situation that falls within the scope of the prohibition on inhuman and degrading treatment under Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The European Prison Rules and the UN's Revised Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Nelson Mandela Rules) are both relevant to any assessment of the adequacy of prison health care. Note in particular that Rule 24 of the Nelson Mandela Rules states "prisoners should enjoy the same standards of health-care that are available in the community", Rule 26 states "a prisoner may appoint a third party to access his or her medical file" and Rule 27 states "all prisons shall ensure prompt access to medical attention in urgent cases."

I hope you will intervene to expedite prompt access to Dr Bassalat's medical records by his neuro-surgeon and anyone else nominated by Dr Bassalat, and that more generally you will ensure that all necessary steps are taken to provide Dr Bassalat with the prompt access to appropriate medical care that he very clearly needs.

I understand that any reply to this letter will engage data protection issues. I therefore urge you to seek Dr Bassalat's permission to share with me such information as you need to in order to respond meaningfully.

Yours sincerely,

Richard Haley (Chair, SACC)"

Richard Haley added today:

"It's often said that justice delayed is justice denied. The same might be said about medical care. Dr Bassalat has been suffering for too long. He went into prison on his feet and is now on crutches. Maghaberry Prison must stop putting obstacles between Dr Bassalat and the treatment he so obviously needs."