BEIRUT: Five members of the Internal Security Forces are under arrest after videos surfaced showing them severely beating prisoners held in Lebanon’s notorious Roumieh prison as the interior minister vowed to prosecute aggressors.
“I assume full responsibility for what occurred,” Nouhad Machnouk told reporters during a news conference Sunday.
The videos, published on social media sites over the weekend, show ISF members beating a handful of handcuffed and kneeling prisoners with a baton, and groping them and kicking them in the face. They were in a sun-lit room with several other quiet, kneeling prisoners.
Machnouk said at least four other guards had participated in the torture, in addition to the two whose faces appeared in the video and have been arrested.
Later Sunday night, Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi announced that five ISF personnel involved in the torture episodes were arrested.
Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri called both Rifi and Machnouk, condemning the acts of torture and demanding that all those involved be held accountable.
According to a statement from Hariri’s office, Rifi and Machnouk informed Hariri that investigations into the case “will be carried out until the end to uncover perpetrators and prosecute them.”
Hariri described the torture videos as “inhumane acts” and called for severe punishments for all those involved.
“Their acts and behaviors tarnish the reputation of the state, the government and the Internal Security Forces,” he said.
Machnouk said he would not permit such abusive treatment “under any circumstances or for any reason,” but said it was “not strange” that it had happened. He said the video was shot during last April’s prison revolt, when prisoners blocked entrances, set mattresses on fire, and took 20 guards hostage.
“We must take into consideration that hundreds of security forces had entered a facility that was housing at least 1,000 inmates,” he said. “So it is not strange that four or six officers did this.”
The interior minister vowed to take all legal measures against those found guilty of misconduct, asserting that such abuse has not recurred since. Rifi added separately, “This crime cannot go unpunished. I’ve asked the Prosecutor General to pursue the investigation to its very end.”
The video has drawn renewed attention to overcrowding and mistreatment in Lebanon’s prisons.
A United Nations report published last year described torture as widespread and systemic. “Torture in Lebanon is a pervasive practice that is routinely used by the armed forces and law enforcement agencies,” it said.
The U.N. Committee Against Torture documented abuse at Beirut’s Hobeish detention center, Baabda’s women’s prison, Roumieh and unofficial detention centers in the capital’s southern suburbs. It said women prisoners were subjected to sexual violence, and noted that inmates in Roumieh were “severely tortured” by ISF or military interrogators.
In a statement, the ISF sought to cast the incidents captured in the videos as anomalous. It affirmed its commitment to human rights and promised to carry out a complete investigation.
But Nadim Houry of Human Rights Watch said prison abuse in Lebanon is “rampant.”
“Lebanon pays lip service [to its human rights commitments], but in practice it isn’t protecting its prisoners,” he said.
“Every few months something comes to the surface,” he added.
Machnouk admitted that the conditions in Roumieh before the April revolt “were very bad,” owing especially to overcrowding. He noted that Lebanon’s prisons have space for just 2,500 inmates but hold 7,000.
The revolt occurred in Roumieh’s Block D. Prisoners had demanded to be transferred back to Block B, where they had enjoyed considerable autonomy before the ISF forcibly relocated them to stricter quarters in January. It took the ISF days to quell the riots.
But Machnouk said conditions improved considerably afterward, when the prison was able to return some of its inmates to the newly renovated Block B.
The videos that surfaced on YouTube Saturday showed over a dozen Roumieh prisoners crouching on a floor with their hands tied behind their backs. The men, who were stripped shirtless, were beaten severely with a long green rod.
One guard was shown groping a prisoner before hammering his back with repetitive blows. The victim was writhing and wailing in pain as his back turned red from the beating.
The guard then made his way to the opposite corner of the room where he began striking another tattooed prisoner.
A follow-up video showed another prisoner, wearing only his underwear, crouching in the corner as a guard approached.
The guard questioned the inmate on the charges against him, to which the prisoner replied he was incarcerated for “transporting terrorists.” The guard then struck him several times with the same green rod on the face, back and legs.
The guard then ordered the prisoner to kiss his feet and subsequently kicked him in the face with his boot.
Pro-Islamist Twitter pages identified the beaten prisoners as Sheikh Omar Atrash from the northeastern border town of Arsal, Qatibah al-Asaad from the Lebanese border area of Wadi Khaled and Wael al-Samad from the Dinnieh town of Bakhoun in north Lebanon.
But Machnouk denied that the abusive agents had singled out Islamists. He said the video showed the agents “picking prisoners [to beat] at random.”
Machnouk emphasized the fairness of the prison system. “I am responsible for the human rights of each prisoner, regardless of his affiliation.”
“These incidents happen, but I stress: We are the only Arab state that has referred officers who mistreated prisoners to the military court,” he said.
He added he would meet with the three victims Monday to hear their version of the story.
Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Latif Derian said the video should prompt long overdue prison reform.