ROUMIEH, Lebanon: Government officials inaugurated Monday a spacious new courtroom in the country’s largest prison facility that will be used for the trials of hundreds of detainees who have been held indefinitely at Roumieh jail.
The courtroom will initially be used for the trials of Islamist inmates who were arrested during Fatah al-Islam’s battles with the Lebanese Army in Nahr al-Bared in 2007. It will also help pretrial procedures occur smoothly.
Following deadly riots last year, officials decided to build the new courtroom to hold trials for some of Roumieh’s roughly 4,000 inmates.
During one of the most dangerous riots, inmates and their families attempted to protest delayed trials and indefinite detention.
The notorious 200,000 square meter prison complex originally had a courtroom when it was inaugurated by President Fouad Chehab five decades ago, but as the prison population rose, it was eventually transformed to hold inmates.
While construction at the facility is ongoing, Justice Minister Shakib Qortbawi – who inaugurated the courtroom along with Interior Minister Marwan Charbel – said that the new courtroom is ready to hold trials, beginning with the prisoners of the Nahr al-Bared battles.
“This court is ready to hold trials and there will be trials,” Qortbawi told reporters at the three-story building, which includes a courtroom and offices for judges and clerks.
Qortbawi was critical of his predecessors, accusing them of neglecting the country’s prisons, which has become a pressing issue in recent years.
“Maybe some in the previous government did not want trials to happen, but I assure them that they will happen,” Qortbawi added.
The courtroom is equipped with cameras and monitors, allowing judges to watch proceedings from their offices.
The defendants will sit in a partitioned section on the right side of the courtroom behind bulletproof glass.
In front of the judge’s bench are dozens of benches for members of the public to watch the trials.
Preliminary inquiry sessions and trials will begin in the next few days, according to Qortbawi, who said that the detainees will be divided into groups and each group will be interrogated by one of the judges.
The five judges who will preside over the trials are Jean Fahd, Sami Mansour, Berkan Saad, Elias Bou Nassif and Nahida Khaddaj.
During the inquiry sessions, the defendants will be asked to give the names of their lawyers and if they do not have one, the judge will refer to the Beirut Bar Association for the appointment of an attorney.
Qortbawi thanked the government’s Council for Development and Reconstruction and civil society groups for their support in the court’s construction.
The minister said that during his time in office, the number of detainees in Roumieh has significantly decreased. “There are still detainees awaiting trial, but their percentage has fallen to 42 percent,” he said.
He also said that the Justice Ministry has started dispatching teams from the ministry to the country’s 21 prisons as a way to share authority over the prisons with the Interior Ministry.
A bilateral agreement signed by the Justice and Interior ministries in 2006 calls for fully transferring the jurisdiction of prisons to the Justice Ministry. In 1949, the Lebanese government temporarily entrusted authority over prisons to the Interior Ministry.
Charbel said that the new court in Roumieh will help both inmates awaiting trial and the Internal Security Forces personnel because the situation at the jail has become “unbearable,” both on the humanitarian level and the security level.
“Roumieh prison is not only exceptional in Lebanon, but it is exceptional throughout the world,” Charbel said.
Speaking days after guards in Roumieh prison discovered that three inmates had escaped, an angry Charbel said that officials responsible for security at the jail will be held responsible and will be imprisoned in Roumieh.
“Three officers will take the place of the three who managed to escape ... Those three officers will serve their sentence in the same cells that those who escaped were staying and sleeping in,” he said. “We will no longer respond to politicians; we will work based on our plan and we will change the security arrangements at the prison because the current security plan in place in Roumieh is responsible for the escape of the three inmates.”
It was discovered last week that Syrian Omar Othman, Palestinian Mohammad Falah and Algerian Faisal Aiqala had escaped sometime in the past three months.
Charbel also said that the damage done to the Roumieh prison complex during what he called the “intifada” of 2011 has not been repaired yet. “Most floors and sections in the jail are still without doors,” he said.