BEIRUT: Lebanese prisons are crowded to almost twice their capacity and are dangerously neglected and mismanaged by the authorities, a damning report said on Tuesday.
The authoritative report, entitled, “Prisons in Lebanon: Legal and Humanitarian Concerns,” released by the Lebanese Center for Human Rights (LCHR), also demanded the swift closure of two “unacceptable” detention facilities. The 108-page document, researched over a ten-month period, found that while Lebanon’s 20 prisons have an official capacity for 3,653 inmates, the real number incarcerated was 5,324.
In the notorious Roumieh prison alone, about 3,500 inmates are sardined into a facility with a capacity for 1,500.
It added that as most prisons had a capacity that did not match the minimum surface requirements stipulated in the 1977 Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, the “actual capacity” of Lebanese prisons was 2,714 inmates.
“Prisons are a major problem in Lebanon but it’s more a management problem than because there are too many crimes,” Wadih al-Asmar, secretary general of the Lebanese Center for Human Rights, told The Daily Star.
He called the prison system a “vicious circle” in which stifling living conditions led to further criminal behavior amongst incarcerated persons and thus longer sentences. “It’s getting worse and worse,” Asmar said.
“This overcrowding of Lebanese prisoners is an issue that should be addressed and solved urgently, not by building new prisons, but by tackling its roots at the administrative, legal and judicial levels,” CLDH said.
The reason for such cramped conditions is largely because 66 percent of those detained are awaiting trial and 13 percent are detained arbitrarily beyond their sentence, the report found. Foreigners count for 100 percent of those held arbitrarily after completing their sentences, with 81 percent having been convicted of illegal entry and/or stay.
“In Iraq, I had a house and a good job,” the report quoted one incarcerated refugee as saying. “The war forced me to leave my country and I am punished for it.”
CLDH said that because most of those detained arbitrarily were poor and without family support, they had to resort to “begging” within the prison.
“As I have nothing, no one to support me, and to earn a little food, I began to serve inmates in my cell. I wash the toilets and prepare tea. They call me the slave,” it quoted a Bangladeshi inmate as telling researchers.
“There are a lot of simple and very easy things that we can do in Lebanon to avoid more prisoners,” Asmar said, drawing attention to the need for an improved legal aid system to assist inmates who cannot afford lawyers. It also noted the lack of commitment by lawyers provided through current legal assistance programs. Because of a lack of incentive, they often don’t bother to meet their clients or show up for hearings.
The report also noted that despite an unofficial de facto moratorium on the death penalty since 2004, 61 men and one woman were given capital punishment sentences between April and September 2009.
CLDH called for the urgent need to close the Defense Ministry Prison, notorious for widespread torture, and the General Security Retention Center, where foreigners are “held” underground for months. Not considered an official prison, the Retention Center’s poor management is the second leading cause of overcrowded prisons, the report said. The facility has no hot water and in contravention to Lebanese law, “aggressive and brutal” male guards are tasked with supervising women detainees. “We cannot accept to put people underground like animals,” Asmar said. The report calls for the facility to be closed immediately and replaced by another retention center “built and managed in compliance with international standards.”
Addressing the Defense Ministry prisons, Asmar said intelligence officials continued to torture and detain suspects. “For decades the intelligence services have appeared to be out of control, showing no respect for legal procedures.” CLDH noted that whistle-blowers are also targeted, citing the case of former detainee Adonis Akra. In November 2009, Akra was ordered to pay a fine of 10 million Lebanese pounds for undermining the army’s reputation by detailing his experience of torture in the book, “When I Became Number 16.”
CLDH’s report corroborates conclusions reached by General Ashraf Rifi, head of the Internal Security Forces, who submitted assessed Lebanon’s prisons conditions in August 2009.
Among other points, Rifi’s report warned that 280 Islamists in Roumieh are allowed to mix freely with other prisoners. Despite being a high-security facility, Roumieh lacks electronic surveillance equipment and a professional administration, he said, adding the situation could “explode” and cause a “catastrophic” tragedy.
“Jails in Lebanon need renewal, rehabilitation, utility and social services,” Asmar said. “The role of jails as a social rehabilitative institution is not being taken into serious consideration.” – Additional reporting by Wissam Stetie