True||On March 16, riots broke out in Lebanon’s two largest prisons as inmates demanded to be released over fears the coronavirus would soon spread within the grossly overcrowded cellblocks. However, the virus only told part of the story.||

BEIRUT: On March 16, riots broke out in Lebanon’s two largest prisons as inmates demanded to be released over fears the coronavirus would soon spread within the grossly overcrowded cellblocks. However, the virus only told part of the story.

Over the course of two days, videos filmed from inside the prisons showed inmates breaking out of their cells and starting large fires, many even threatening to self-harm if they were not granted amnesty. At Roumieh, Lebanon’s largest and most notorious prison facility, security forces were seen violently intervening, with inmates alleging that they used live ammunition to curb the unrest – something the Internal Security Forces have denied.

In one video seen by The Daily Star, an inmate with a large open wound to his ribcage writhes on the floor struggling to breathe. “Look at what the state is doing to us,” his fellow prisoners can be heard shouting as they franticly tend to him.

Although no cases have so far officially been recorded within the prison system, a “number of measures have since been implemented” to respond to the virus outbreak and alleviate inmate’s concerns, according to Raja S. Abinader, head of the Prisons Directorate at the Justice Ministry.

Among these, cellblocks and prison wings have been sanitized, visitation has been limited to one person per inmate through protective glass, and protective equipment such as masks and gloves have also been distributed throughout the prison.

However, despite these assurances, a senior source in the ISF told The Daily Star under condition of anonymity that only prison staff were currently being provided with such protective equipment – on the grounds that the prisoners themselves were “already isolated.”

To make matters worse, despite at least two emergency draft laws being tabled in recent weeks which would pardon both low-risk inmates as well as those whose sentences have ended but are still in prison for outstanding fines, they need to pass through Parliament before coming into effect, which is currently not meeting due to the virus outbreak.

As a result, despite indications by Prime Minister Hassan Diab Saturday that a meeting could be held "electronically" as soon as next week, no inmates have yet been released under any of these emergency measures.

Consequently, nearly two weeks later, dozens of inmates are still on hunger strike demanding the expedition of a long-promised amnesty bill, which would see thousands released for crimes ranging from drug possession to involvement with Islamist groups, the ISF source told The Daily Star.

Former PM Saad Hariri came out Friday to comment on the urgency of passing the amnesty bill, also stressing the need for it to include Islamist prisoners “who are paying the price for the slowdown in trials.” In Roumieh, the unrest started in the notorious “Block B” of the prison, which holds those inmates linked to Islamist terror cases.

“Today there is an epidemic that has limitless risks on the lives of citizens,” Hariri said in a statement released by his press office. “A general amnesty has become an urgent demand that is more important than all narrow calculations, and political considerations are no longer acceptable.”

Sunday, inmates at Zahle prison staged yet another demonstration demanding their release, with reports that a number of prisoners had sown their lips shut in protest.

However, this unrest stretches far deeper than fears over the spread of coronavirus, and is instead symptomatic of much broader complexities which have for decades plagued Lebanon’s ailing prison system.

“As many people know, overcrowding is a huge issue in Lebanese prisons,” said Fadel Fakih, executive director for The Lebanese Center for Human Rights, speaking to The Daily Star. “The number of prisoners in each cell is extremely high – with no more than 1 square meter per inmate. As a result, we see prisoners sleeping side-by-side and head-to-toe on the floor.”

According to statistics gathered by the Beirut Bar Association in December, there are over 7,000 detainees in Lebanon spread across 25 prisons and 261 local jails designed only for a maximum of 2,500 inmates. This means the prison system is at nearly three times capacity.

To add to this, Lebanon’s two central prisons – Roumieh and Zahle – are the only structures designed to be official jails. The majority of detention facilities are located in the basements of military barracks and security buildings, or in crumbling serails dating back to the Ottoman era.

“We see a lot of malnutrition because of the quality of the food provided to prisoners,” Fakih said. “In detention facilities specifically, officers have to buy food for inmates from the own pocket, or the inmates themselves have their families bring them what they need.”

“To add to this, there is also no proper monitoring of diseases and infections – even before the coronavirus outbreak,” according to Fakih. “Inmates don’t have access to adequate healthcare within the prison so are often sent to hospitals only when it is too late and their situation has become critical.”

THE ISSUE OF PRETRIAL DETAINEES

According to an information request filed by The Daily Star with the Justice Ministry, pretrial detainees make up 55 percent of the prison population in Lebanon – nearly double the global average.

These figures, however, exclude other detention centers, such as those run by General Security, the Military Intelligence and State Security, indicating that the ratio of individuals held in pretrial detention is in fact much higher.

“It’s a catastrophe waiting to happen,” said Aya Majzoub, Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch, when asked about how the virus could affect the inmate population. “There is no excuse to continue holding pretrial detainees in these conditions. People in detention have the same right to health care as everyone else.”

Pretrial detention may amount to arbitrary detention when it breaches legal requirements or when it is used excessively and without an identifiable purpose. It also increases the risk of inhuman treatment and limits access to appropriate healthcare services, particularly when detention facilities are grossly overcrowded such as in Lebanon.

“The justice system as a whole needs large reforms – our laws need reform, our practices need reform,” Abinader said. “A lot of pretrial detainees are being held in prolonged detention just because there aren’t enough trucks or drivers to transfer them to the courthouse – so they end up missing their hearing.”

According to Abinader, these are then adjourned months and sometimes years ahead simply because the courts have such a backlog of cases.

“Right now, all of our focus and energy is focused on how we can fight the possibility of the corona outbreak within the prison system,” replied Abinader when asked about the possibility of reform. “I don’t know when this health emergency will be over. We can’t focus on anything else right now. My priority is to prevent the outbreak.”

Despite this, according to Abinader, the Justice Ministry has begun taking steps to expedite the temporary release of any pretrial detainees who would not pose a risk to society or the victim of the crime, adding that the Justice Minister Marie Clause Najm had also requested a decrease in arrests other than for the most serious offenses in order to alleviate overcrowding.

However, with many already labeling the coronavirus outbreak as Lebanon’s “coup de grace,” it may be a case of too little too late in a prison system already buckling under the pressure of the worst financial crisis since the Civil War. In the meantime, with little chance of long-term reform anytime soon, inmates’ anxiety continues to grow – signaling that unrest in recent weeks may only be the start.

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