In the re-enactment of a scene notorious in the Middle East, on Friday 16 October, a young man tried to set himself on fire. This radical action, however, stood out for having been staged in front of the Military Court in Beirut, the capital of one of the few Arab states not to have witnessed a so-called “Spring”.
The young man was hospitalised and his life is not in danger. His action was aimed at denouncing the holding in custody of Warif Sleiman and Pierre Hashash, both activists of the “You Stink” citizens’ movement, that brought thousands of Lebanese citizens onto the streets to protest against the mismanagement of the waste crisis in the country.
Since the protests began in August, “over 100 protesters have been detained and subsequently released after having been subjected to degrading and humiliating treatment,” notes Wadi el-Asmar, general secretary of the Lebanese Human Rights Centre (CLDH). In his view: “Aside from the fact that Warif and Pierre should not have been arrested, that they should be tried before a military court only adds to the travesty. They are being prosecuted for damages to military equipment…because they brought down the barbed wire that was blocking the path of the protesters!”
A movement rooted in environmental consciousness, “You Stink” soon grew into a catalyst of people’s frustration with corruption and the paralysis of a moribund political system.
The failings of Lebanon’s justice system and its out-dated prison policy are the most alarming symptoms.
Warif Sleiman and Pierre Hashash have been in custody for several weeks, awaiting a military trial.
In Lebanon, the improper recourse to pre-trial detention and military justice should have been reassessed long ago. Raja Abi Nader, who is in charge of the prison system reform at the Ministry of Justice, admitted in an interview with Equal Times: “The competence of the military court is very broad nowadays. It was set up in 1958, in times of war, and a reform is long overdue.”
Abi Nader adds that recourse to custodial detention is abused in Lebanon: “There is no alternative to prison. Parole is only given on an exceptional basis and community service only applies to minors. The Justice Ministry presented a bill aimed at developing these alternatives over two years ago. Why is it taking so long? Because the country is paralysed! Lebanon has spent longer periods without a parliament and a government than with them. And we’ve now gone a whole year without a president!”
Meanwhile, justice is slow, prisons are overcrowded and corruption is spreading.
In Lebanon, over 60 per cent of the prison population is detained in custody. They are left to rot in one of the country’s 23 prisons whilst awaiting trial, “which can take up to two to three years in certain criminal courts,” according to Ziad Achour, a lawyer working for the AJEM (Association Justice et Miséricorde, or the Association of Justice and Mercy in English). Roumieh is the only prison designed to accommodate convicts. Built in the 1960s to hold 1050 prisoners, it currently has 3151 inmates.
The other ‘prisons’ are military barracks to which bars have been added.
Denial of fundamental rights
Hana Nassif, the co-founder of AJEM, the country’s only association authorised to intervene behind bars, bears witness to the numerous human rights violations in Lebanese jails.
“We set up the AJEM in 1996, the year in which Roumieh prison experienced its first mutiny after the director general burnt the genitals of an inmate he accused of homosexuality. In an attempt to appease the situation, the Interior Ministry agreed to give us access. But we are only just tolerated, as in accordance with the law on prisons, which dates back to 1943, only religious representatives are allowed to enter prisons. The detainees don’t have the right to see a psychiatrist, a social worker or an educator,” she tells us from the AJEM’s reception centre for former detainees.
She adds: “I’ve seen prisoners being tortured before my very eyes. Most of the inmates, even those locked up for “terrorism”, are poor, disabled or socially excluded people. What they need is a second chance.”
Locked up for minor offences such as the consumption of soft drugs, deprived of a lawyer and due process, many detainees who were innocent on arriving at Roumieh become experts in all manner of criminal activities by the time they leave.
Fadi (not his real name) is one of them. He has spent nine years in Lebanese jails for a string of repeat offences.
“Here, they throw you into jail and forget about you. In my case, I had a drug problem, I was sick. Instead of admitting me into a health facility, they threw me in the middle of criminals for a whole year. I didn’t even know what charges had been brought against me. There are more drugs inside Roumieh than outside! The wardens let them in and some of them take them too,” he tells Equal Times from the AJEM shelter where he is now trying to start a new life.
The lack of funds and the neglect inside Lebanese prisons have created a security time bomb that the current Interior Minister, Nouhad Machnouk, decided to defuse by staging a military operation in Roumieh last February.
Evidence arose that a terrorist attack staged in the Lebanese city of Tripoli had been masterminded from cell block B of the prison, where Islamist prisoners are held.
“The inmates had slowly been allowed to take control, as a result of the corruption in the administration and the government. We even arrested prison wardens during the operation,” admits General Mounir Chaaban, who is in charge of penitentiary reform at the Interior Ministry.
Since then, a far-reaching penitentiary reform programme has been underway.
In addition to the construction of a new prison facility within the grounds of an army barracks, a high security prison is also being built.
But AJEM lawyer Ziad Achour is sceptical: “The Interior Ministry’s policy is to build jails…and then to fill them. That is not a prison policy. The question is how to rehabilitate prisoners, how to deal with their specific needs and to separate them according to their profile,” he stresses.
“The number of repeat offenders in Lebanon also shows that there is no rehabilitation once they leave prison.” Currently, only four per cent of detainees have access to rehabilitation workshops inside the prisons.
The Ministry of the Interior is heading the current penitentiary reform. The funding is provided through an association set up by the Minister himself, which has led to criticism from certain activists who fear the risk of a conflict of interest.
In 2012, the Lebanese government had decided to hand over the management of prisons to a new penitentiary administration, under the supervision of the Justice Ministry. But this transfer of powers has not yet come into effect.
“Currently, a member of the security forces can be put in charge of road traffic one day and be transferred to Roumieh the next, to guard a facility with 1400 detainees, without any training,” notes Raja Abi Nader.
It is a situation open to all kinds of abuses. In June, a video posted on the social media showing prison guards torturing Islamist detainees provoked widespread public outrage.
This article has been translated from French.