ROUMIEH, Lebanon: Caretaker Justice Minister Shakib Qortbawi said Wednesday that investigations into allegations of corruption during renovations of Roumieh prison’s Block D had been finalized.
Meanwhile the caretaker interior minister said prison guards would commence routine checks on the notorious Block B for contraband material.
After touring Roumieh prison with caretaker Interior Minister Marwan Charbel, Qortbawi said that the investigation by the financial prosecutor into the allegations of corruption had been finalized and that he was waiting for permission to be able to prosecute public servants over the case.
“Every person who is prosecuted will be referred [to the relevant judiciary],” he said.
In October, Qortbawi announced his intention to bring justice to the case of allegedly mismanaged funds to renovate the prison.
He also said the judiciary was looking into expanding the court facility inside Roumieh.
Speaking to The Daily Star, the only thing Charbel could say about the contractors leading the renovation was that “everything is now in the hands of the courts and the legal system.”
The caretaker justice minister also warned that the crime rate among Lebanese and non-Lebanese was increasing, and that 36 percent of those arrested were not Lebanese nationals. The rising number of inmates has exacerbated the endemic problem of overcrowding in the facility, which was built in the 1950s when the crime rate was relatively low.
Responding to a question about the prevalence of cell phones in Block B, despite regulations prohibiting their use among prisoners, Charbel said there would be biweekly checks on the cells of Islamist prisoners for contraband material, but added that their phone use actually allowed intelligence personnel to better monitor their activities.
“We have already caught many prisoners, but our main aim will be to rehabilitate the prisoners. [What happens is that] most prisoners come here committing one crime, and leave knowing how to commit a bunch of other crimes,” Charbel added.
Teeming with armed personnel from the Internal Security Forces, a heavily fortified Roumieh welcomed Qortbawi and Charbel to assess the state of affairs in Lebanon’s most notorious prison.
In July, Charbel told the media he was shocked by the substandard work of a contracting company tasked with renovating parts of the prison after touring the facility. An investigation was launched shortly afterward.
Charbel and Qortbawi’s tour began with a closed-door meeting in the prison’s Block B, “the most dangerous place in Roumieh,” as it was described by one inmate who preferred to remain anonymous.
Block B hosts a number of inmates, including members of Fatah al-Islam and other fundamentalist Islamist groups in Lebanon. Many have been held without trial since 2007, following clashes between Fatah al-Islam and the Army.
“We heard the demands and requests of the prisoners and there are some requests having to do with the judiciary and the delay of trials,” Qortbawi said. “Anything that might help us will be sent to us. The judiciary will increase the number of sessions, and there is a trial and court inside the prison, but the judges are people and sometimes there is negligence.”
“We will try to cooperate to fight crime and to speed up trials. It’s true that it doesn’t always happen immediately, but there is an extraordinary effort to speed up the process,” he added.
The main concern, however, was not about Block B, but rather Block D, which houses convicts serving out their sentences, as opposed to prisoners pursuing bail or awaiting trial – a process that can take many years, especially for foreign migrant workers.
After the closed-door session, Qortbawi and Charbel were escorted to the prison chapel by a troop of ISF officers for a Christmas recital.
En route to the chapel, the two ministers had to walk across the Block D courtyard, where hundreds of prisoners, catching sight of the ministers, clapped. Others were not so enthusiastic to see the politicians.
“They come and they go, nothing will change here,” complained one prisoner who said he has been in Roumieh for most of his life.
The recital, which ended not long after it had begun, was attended by Qortbawi, Charbel, their security personnel and journalists, but the majority of the audience members were prisoners themselves. Soon after the recital, prisoners surrounded the ministers inside the chapel and began asking questions.
The shorter Qortbawi virtually vanished under a swarm of prisoners whereas the taller Charbel confidently told the prisoners that this would not be his last visit to Roumieh, and that he would return with only good news.
One downcast prisoner had to be apprehended by ISF officers because he began screaming and making violent gestures at the minister.
“I need a doctor!” the prisoner screamed. “I have diabetes and am very unhealthy!”
At the news conference Charbel was quick to say: “Next time, the health minister will be joining us,” perhaps in an indirect response to the prisoner’s cries for medical help.