The Lebanese judiciary has announced that it intends to speed up of the trials of Islamist prisoners. This represents a last-ditch effort to defuse the hostage crisis in Arsal.
Twenty-four members of the Lebanese Army and security forces who were taken prisoner near Arsal are still being detained by the Nusra Front and ISIS, with one soldier reported to have been beheaded. Both groups are demanding the release of Islamists imprisoned in Roumieh in exchange for freeing the men they hold.
The Lebanese justice and prison system is unintentionally contributing to radicalizing a generation of young individuals. Indiscriminate arrests, indefinite detention without trial and the imprisonment of inexperienced Islamists with hardened extremists in Roumieh have all contributed to this process.
In its fight against terrorism, Lebanon is relying solely on the politics of repression. Before Arsal, the Lebanese security institutions had repeatedly faced terrorist groups over the years, from the fighting in Dinnieh in 2000, to the Nahr al-Bared battle in 2007, to the Abra clashes last year.
The war against terrorism requires taking a firm position. However, this is not effective on its own, as recent developments have shown. Roumieh has been used as an operating room for movements such as ISIS and the Nusra Front, consolidating the power of terrorist groups.
“Convicts have claimed responsibility for bombings and issued jihadist statements from prison,” a Lebanese security source told me on condition of anonymity.
Roumieh has thus drifted away from its original purpose as a tool to punish and possibly allow for the rehabilitation of radicals to becoming a major theater for their political struggle.
Many factors have contributed to this reality. The imprisonment of minors or young Islamists with more experienced extremists is facilitating the recruitment process of radical organizations. “No distinction is made of the inmates’ backgrounds, who are all placed in Roumieh’s B bloc together,” said lawyer Mohammad Sabloukh. Radicals gain the loyalty of fresh inmates by befriending them or offering them protection, whether from other inmates or from prison authorities, who fear them and often provide them with special privileges.
Moderate inmates who do not fall in line with the radicals’ discourse are often subjected to intimidation, Sabloukh added. A failure to tackle the shortcomings of Lebanon’s prison and justice problem will generate a fresh wave of hardened extremists, both inside and outside the country’s prisons.
Besides the internal dynamics, other factors contribute to this trend. The unfairness and lack of consistency of the Lebanese justice system facilitates the work of powerful terrorist cells. According to Khiam, a non-governmental organization that concerns itself with the victims of torture, around 60 percent of all Lebanese prisoners have not yet been sentenced.
Lawyer Maha Fatha estimates that 30 percent of Islamists served prison sentences of several years before they were declared innocent by the justice system. Another 25-30 percent of them have been kept in prison for periods longer than their actual sentences, she added.
Those with minor offenses imprisoned for longer time periods than their sentence tend to take two extreme paths, according to Islamist lawyer Hashem Ayoubi. “Prison either pushes them to isolate themselves or, on the contrary, reaffirms their beliefs to the extreme,” he explained to me.
Prisons are also harmful to prisoners’ families. Feeling the injustice done to their loved ones, they often become radicalized themselves. This allows Islamist proselytizers to extend their networks within the social structures of Roumieh.
The congested facility, which has a maximum capacity of 1,500 inmates, is currently holding between 3,000-4,000 prisoners, and has become part of a massive problem. Terror organizations have learned to master and turn to their advantage the weakness of a corrupt and demoralized prison system by recruiting within the prison population, transforming Roumieh into a learning center for radical groups.
The Lebanese justice system is now caught between a rock and hard place. One the one hand it strives to keep radical figures off the streets by imprisoning Islamists indiscriminately; on the other, such actions are effectively feeding the radicals’ narrative of victimization.
The debate about addressing the Islamists needs to be raised above the language of “toughness” and must focus instead on what actually works to contain and reduce terrorist activity.
Repairing one injustice by committing another has proved to be fruitless. Addressing social and economic conditions, allowing the law to be applicable to everyone equally, as well as fighting corruption are the only ways to defeat extremism. Other simple measures can include bringing in moderate religious figures to counsel prisoners, who often turn to religion during difficult times – thus defeating extremists at their own efforts to convert their comrades. Another would be to establish a de-radicalization center, which could be backed by measures such as segregating hard-line extremists from other inmates. To reduce the extremists’ clout, guards need to crack down on prison feuds and prevent extremists from being viewed as protectors, therefore as sources of authority inside the prison.
Speedy and fair trials are a final step to preventing radicalism from growing inside and outside Roumieh. Giving Islamist inmates hope for a decent future may deter them from seeking martyrdom and confrontation with the Lebanese state.
Mona Alami is a French-Lebanese journalist and researcher who writes about political and economic issues in the Arab world. She wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.