BEIRUT: A senior security source confirmed Friday that tightened security measures at Tripoli’s Qibbeh Prison initiated due to a hunger strike by prisoners calling for a general amnesty had increased tensions, leading to a riot.
Qibbeh inmates Thursday set a fire inside the prison following the start of a hunger strike a few days earlier. Security forces used live gunfire to disperse a crowd of inmates’ family members who gathered outside the prison and set a fire in attempts to enter.
Firefighters later put out both fires, and the source said conditions in the prison returned to what they were before the riot after some prisoners were treated for smoke inhalation.
The source said the increased measures included constraints on the types of food allowed into the prison from family members due to possible smuggling of contraband.
They added that these measures led to heightened tensions, partly because some prisoners were forced to buy from the prison shop, which is more expensive. An altercation ensued between prison guards and inmates, which led the prisoners to set bedsheets on fire, the source said.
The source added it was unclear whether those who rioted had been on the hunger strike or not, and security forces were “working to find out who is responsible.”
A prominent general amnesty activist with knowledge of the situation told The Daily Star Thursday that security forces had attempted to end the strike, leading some prisoners to riot and set the fire.
The security source denied that forces intervened in the strike, but said it was possible security forces would intervene on an individual basis, under certain conditions.
The security source added the major issue in Qibbeh was overcrowding, as the prison, designed to hold 250-400 prisoners in its 16 rooms, now holds 829. That means rooms that were designed to hold at most 25 people now contain over 50.
“This is one of the things that may have increased tensions,” he said. “The prisons can’t take this large number of people. It’s a real problem. The new Interior Minister Raya El Hassan has made resolving this situation a priority.”
Hassan has said since her appointment that Lebanon’s prisons need to shift their focus onto rehabilitation, adding that she had pledged to work toward that goal.
Meanwhile, the source confirmed that hundreds of inmates were continuing to strike at Metn’s Roumieh Prison, also demanding a general amnesty. They said the prison, designed to hold 1,050, now had 3,600-3,700 inmates.
That’s more than half of the 6,698 people who were in prison across Lebanon as of last week.
Some of the prisoners had reportedly sewn their lips shut. Images shared with The Daily Star from the families of two inmates purported to show several men who had done so.
The prisoners on hunger strike have demanded that the state pass a general amnesty law for those imprisoned or wanted on charges of participating in Islamist violence, drug crimes and theft.
A network of Sunni and Shiite activists has for years been calling for the law, which would mostly benefit people from the Shiite-majority Bekaa region and Sunni-majority north Lebanon.
Protests were staged Friday in the southern city of Sidon and on Beirut’s airport road calling for a general amnesty. Many politicians have endorsed such a move, and the new government has committed to it in its policy statement.
Tripoli MP Othman Alameddine told The Daily Star Thursday that the general amnesty was practically ready, but required a political decision. He likened prison in Lebanon to a “death sentence.”
But the security source said that, other than overcrowding, the prisons worked with the U.N. to meet international standards. “The prisons we have are not Guantanamo. There are human rights, visits are allowed, care is provided. The problem is the lack of space, but what can security forces do about that?”