BEIRUT: Lebanon must immediately close a “disgraceful” retention center where refugees and migrants are held arbitrarily in appalling conditions, activists demanded Sunday.
Braving heavy rain, around 60 people demonstrated outside the General Security Retention Center, an underground facility under Beirut’s Adlieh Bridge. Protestors flanked by almost as many security officials held placards reading: “The Lebanese Guantanamo,” “Asylum is a right, NOT a crime,” and “General Security VS human security.”
Not considered an official prison, the facility, opened in 1996, has no hot water, natural light or fresh air, and in contravention to Lebanese law, male guards are tasked with supervising female detainees. Many of those who have been detained complain of physical violence from guards, poor nutrition and filthy living conditions.
“Try to stay here for a full day,” said Wadih al-Asmar, secretary general of the Lebanese Center for Human Rights (LCHR), which organized the protest. “It’s really a nightmare, even for the people who work inside,” he said, pointing to serious health problems resulting from breathing in continuously recirculated air.
Some 66 percent of all 5,324 inmates in Lebanon are presently awaiting trial and 13 percent are detained arbitrarily beyond their sentence, said an August 2008 report by General Ashraf Rifi, head of the Internal Security Forces.
According to LCHR, foreigners – either refugees or migrants – count for 100 percent of those held arbitrarily, with 81 percent having been convicted of illegal entry and/or stay.
Currently, after foreigners complete their sentences, the ISF refers their case to General Security, with almost all of them being moved to the Retention Center. The practice contradicts Article 8 of the Lebanese Constitution, which states that “no one may be arrested, imprisoned or kept in custody except in accordance to the provisions of the law.”
The only provision permitting General Security to arbitrarily detain a person, Article 18 of the 1962 Law on Entry and Exit, stipulates that a foreigner can be detained with prior approval of the public prosecutor only if they represent a threat to national or public security.
The retention center was a source of disgrace, said one woman who helps detained migrants obtain legal aid. “There are major civil rights and human rights violations with the conditions underneath this bridge.”
She recalled the story of one very sick migrant woman she was helping. “She was shoved out, chained to another woman into a military jeep to be taken to the hospital. She was literally shoved by huge guards, the other woman was screaming – it was like they were cattle.”
Nadim Houry, senior researcher for Lebanon and Syria at Human Rights Watch, said the detention of the vast majority of the detainees was illegal.
“This is something the Lebanese judiciary has said in at least four judgments in the last few months,” he said in reference to four decisions made over the last two months saying the continued detention of four Iraqi refugees beyond their sentences had no legal justification. Only one of the four has been released.
“Lebanon should grant refugees and asylum seekers temporary residence in the country while either their country gets better or a third country resettlement possibility is explored,” Houry said.
“They should not spend that time in jail waiting for this to happen,” Houry added.
He urged the Interior and Justice Ministries to establish a joint task force to prepare a list of illegally detained foreigners who have completed their sentences, and to release them immediately. “The option that is being given to these refugees is rot here or die there,” Houry said, recalling a 2007 report by HRW with the same name. “It’s a non-choice. These people do not represent a threat to Lebanon.”
“It has to be Parliament and the government that sets policy on foreigners in Lebanon, not General Security,” Houry said. “General Security is tasked with enforcing and implementing policy, not setting policy.”
The protest comes amid a flurry of activity urging swift reform to Lebanon’s prison system. Last week a report by LCHR demanded the Center, along with the Defense Ministry Prison, notorious for widespread torture, be closed.
A 2008 US State Department report into human rights practices in Lebanon noted the country’s prison conditions were “poor and did not meet minimum international standards.”