BEIRUT: Police officers openly advocated for the ability to use violence during investigations at a rights training session Wednesday, revealing a striking clash between the country’s human rights policies and practice.
The discussion at Saint Joseph University hosted by AJEM, a criminal justice advocacy organization, focused on teaching law enforcement practices that are in line with national and international conventions on human rights.
The event concluded a three-year program sponsored by the EU to educate 900 Internal Security Force officers on human rights practices. But many questions from participants seemed worlds apart from the national and international norms that the NGO and judiciary hosts were advocating.
Doesn’t a man who committed vicious crimes deserve to be beaten, asked one officer.
“Is it my fault that I took the confession by force?” he asked.
Another similar question was met by applause from other officers, who supported the concerns of their colleagues. Officers asked whether in some cases physical coercion of a confession was needed to stop a criminal from committing more crimes.
Panelists at the event asked the ISF personnel to exercise restraint and respect people’s rights despite supposed guilt, adding that the behavior advocated by police was culturally reinforced in Lebanese society.
“You are going beyond the authority that is given to you,” said investigative Judge Ziad Makanna. “If you can’t gather the information, the law doesn’t allow you to take it by force. You are violating the law.”
Human rights activists have long been critical of what they say is a bloated and dysfunctional judiciary that leads to major rights abuses, although officials have recently acknowledged the practice of torture by police and security personnel.
Makanna said he understood the roots of the police officers’ opinions, but said the culture must change.
“I can understand your reaction because of our culture, it allows us to go in this path, but this is what I’m saying – we need to change our behavior to implement this agreement in order to protect human rights,” Makanna said.
He said rule of law should be an overriding concern and challenged the participants, saying, “If there is any text in the law that allows you to do this, please show it to me.”
Panelist Ziad Ashour from AJEM made a moral appeal to stop violent police practices.
“We are taking measures that violate the law, thus we are responsible legally and on humanitarian grounds, the law can punish us. They can sue us but most importantly this will lie on our conscience,” he said.
“We need to provide a person with positive circumstances so they can build on their capabilities and reintegrate back into society,” Ashour said.
He called for a kinder judicial system. “We are not treating this person as a human being who has rights and duties, we are misusing power and violating rights.”
The seminar also touched on specific issues such as the psychological relationship between the investigator and suspect, officer prerogatives during an arrest, and the judicial protocol for investigating allegations of torture.
The larger issues of police and judicial performance were highlighted in April, when several days of deadly riots broke out at Roumieh prison and prisons around the country over their conditions and lengthy sentences.
In September, 10 ISF personnel were freed from Roumieh prison after being taken hostage during a riot that wounded 17.
Government officials have promised to build prison facilities to alleviate overcrowding in the prison system. Currently the Roumieh prison houses more than double its intended capacity of prisoners.