Inter-ministerial disputes over the control of penitentiary establishments, coupled with police brutality and lack of funding, have exacerbated the human rights situation of those incarcerated in the country.
In a Lebanon already without law, prisons border on purgatories.
Roumieh, for example, the country’s largest detention center – which just a few years ago held the highest number of convicted activists per square meter in the world – is operating at nearly four times its capacity. Detainees do not have access to sufficient food, water or hygiene products, which allows for the rapid spread of disease and infection. Drugs are also allowed in by the guards who are only too happy to take advantage of the situation. According to recent estimates, at least 100 prisoners are forced to share a toilet.
Last week, a new scabies epidemic brought Roumieh’s notoriously bad conditions back to the headlines. The disease – caused by parasitic mites that burrow and lay eggs inside human skin – is common in crowded places where skin-to-skin contact is unavoidable and resources are scarce.
Rats were believed to be the cause of the last scabies outbreak in August, when rodents were found in a prison water tank.
Hadi, who spent two years in prison between 2018 and 2020, was not surprised to hear about the epidemic, nor particularly baffled. For him, much worse things were happening in Roumieh than the skin infested with mites: he says that during his internment, he rarely saw sunlight; electricity was a blessing, sometimes accessible for less than two hours a day; and the food was sufficient for perhaps a third of the prisoners.
He’s noticeably nervous, but unlike many who have spent time in Roumieh, he’s not afraid of the consequences of public speaking.
âIt’s not for a human. A human is not allowed to be there or stay there, âHadi said.
At the heart of prison reform in Lebanon are internal ministerial and sectarian struggles against a background of widespread corruption. A 1949 decree gave the Home Office governance of the prisons, and despite several decades of attempts to transfer power to the Justice Department, things have remained relatively unchanged for the past 70 years.
For lawyers and authorities alike, the transfer of power over prisons to the justice ministry would mean better treatment for inmates, as authorities and guards would be better trained to deal with the ins and outs of a prison. Currently, the Internal Security Forces, or ISF, which come under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of the Interior, are responsible for the management of prisons. But the prison guard is a job that many ISF members are reluctant to be tasked with and ill-prepared to do, leading to a wide range of human rights violations. Beyond the allegations of torture by former prisoners and NGOs – the United Nations has described torture in Lebanese prisons as “systemic” – most of which have gone unanswered by the authorities, five ISF members were arrested in 2015 after videos were broadcast of them beating, kicking and making fun of handcuffed detainees.
No concrete measures have been taken since to prevent similar incidents from occurring.
If the transfer of power to the Ministry of Justice represents a possible solution for prison reform, it would not be a miracle solution either. To begin with, the budget of the Ministry of Justice is only a fraction of that of the Ministry of the Interior. This presents obstacles for a Lebanon which has historically spent very little on prisoners compared to the rest of the world, and which is currently facing one of the world’s worst financial crises since the mid-19th century due to corruption, poor management and lack of communication. within ministries closely linked to sectarian politics, including the Ministry of Justice.
Interestingly, the last time prison reform was perhaps taken seriously in Lebanon was in the aftermath of the October 2019 anti-government protests, when politicians, with a deep need for public trust so they can work across party lines, have reignited discussions on a 2018 bill that would release or shorten the sentences for thousands of prisoners and void arrest warrants for tens of thousands more.
Despite increased public pressure due to the spread of the coronavirus and deteriorating conditions in the country due to the continued free fall of the local currency, the law was never passed and the conditions only made s ‘aggravate in prisons like Roumieh.
According to Fadel Fakih, executive director of the Lebanese Center for Human Rights, a Beirut-based non-profit human rights organization, the problem starts at the top.
âJustice for people in prison is their right to a good environment. It takes good management. Good management means avoiding overcrowding, it means finding solutions, âhe says.
âBut there is no decision making at any level, especially at the prison level. We don’t have a state of our own. It is not functional.
For Hadi, prison is an exaggerated extension of the current state of the country, ripe with both bigotry and near-anarchy. According to him, the prisoners are not separated by crime, but by religious sect.
âWhen I entered, they looked at my ID card and put me with the Shiites, because that’s what they do with everyone. Christian? Go over there. Sunni, over there, Shiite, over there, âhe says.
While he admits that the system works to prevent the sectarian issues that still plague Lebanon, the result of clustering by sect – not crime – is not particularly pleasant either. While imprisoned for a drug-related crime, his cellmates were charged with armed robbery, identity theft and incestuous rape.
Exposure to such crimes, he says, is what leads to lawless conditions within the prison and a recidivism rate close to 50 percent.
âThe government is mafia, the prisoners are mafia and the guys inside are mafia. They work inside. They sell drugs. It’s a different world in prison, âhe says.
And there is no way to avoid interactions with other fellow inmates, according to Hadi, as inmates are forced to rely on each other and their respective families for basic necessities that the prison does not provide, such as blankets, food and hygiene products. Even donations from organizations like the Red Cross may not be enough, he says, as these products are meant to be supplements, not the only resources available.
âWhen you enter the prison, they don’t give you anything. You even have to buy your cell phone. If you can’t afford a cell, you sleep outside on the floor, âHadi explains.
Officials sing different tunes
Lebanese Congressman George Okais, who tweeted photos of the recent scabies outbreak on Christmas Eve, accompanied by a scathing caption calling Roumieh “a vivid example of state failure and dissolution”, does seems no more optimistic than Hadi about the state of prisons in Lebanon. is.
Sitting behind his desk at his private law firm in Beirut’s Badaro neighborhood, Okais says his tweet, while generating enough interest for a few local newsletters, didn’t do much.
The officials concerned have not reached out and he does not hold his breath.
âWhat is happening at the moment in Roumieh is a real shame, a real massacre for the prisoners. They have no human rights basis, âhe said with a sigh.
Okais is no stranger to prison reform – or the lack of it – in Lebanon. He was instrumental in the development of the amendment guaranteeing detainees the right to a lawyer during questioning, and was intimately involved in human rights long before he became a Member of Parliament. The lingering problems in Lebanese prisons, he says, are not due to a lack of advocacy or innovation in law-making.
Instead, the problems result from a refusal to implement said laws.
“We have a law – a real law, a current law – and the stakeholders are not implementing those freedoms, so I think this is a serious human rights violation,” said Okais, who is supporter of the transfer of prison responsibilities to the Ministry of Justice. But, he also argues that more drastic changes will be needed for prisoners to see the improvements they desperately seek and deserve.
“We have to say it very loudly and very clearly that this way of treating our prisoners is no longer humane,” he said.
But not all public servants are ready to be this daring.
Days after Okais ‘tweet made waves across Lebanon, the president of the Lebanese Doctors’ Union, Dr Sharaf Abu Sharaf said in statements that the outbreak had been mitigated, that 90% of cases of scabies had been treated and the Union had obtained additional medical treatment. care. According to him, four doctors now work four hours a day to provide medical care to some 4,500 prisoners of Roumieh.
Interestingly, Abu Sharaf called on NGOs – not the Lebanese government – to support the prison’s lack of resources, such as blankets, clothes, beds and hygiene products.
In a follow-up interview with TRT WorldAbu Sharaf admitted that overcrowding remains a central problem, but again reiterated that the situation in Roumieh is “under control”, and said additional medical care should help alleviate some of the prison’s problems.
Okais is not saying that Abu Sharaf is misinformed, but he also refuses to go back on what he knows is necessary.
For him, NGOs should only be a fraction of the equation.
“If you have a good civil society and good deeds on the part of parliamentarians on the one hand, and an independent judiciary on the other hand, all the problems will be solved, in my opinion,” he said.
Back in the suburb of Khalde, Hadi works hard to provide for her eight-year-old daughter.
He is trying to rebuild the three years he lost in Roumieh, which has proved particularly difficult in light of the economic crisis.
Sometimes, he says, he wonders what kind of person he would be if he hadn’t been traumatized by his experiences in Roumieh.
But according to his account, he is stronger not because of his experiences, but in spite of them.
âThe problem comes from the prison, from the government. They don’t support prisons.
Source: TRT World