BEIRUT: The scenes that emerged from Roumieh last weekend are just the latest in a troubling history of torture and human rights violations in Lebanon’s prisons and detention centers. Two videos circulating on social media sites showed members of the Internal Security Forces beating, kicking and verbally abusing kneeling, handcuffed inmates in the overcrowded prison. But lawyers, human rights advocates and international agencies have known for years that abuses are widespread and systemic.
“What we saw on the tapes is just a small part of what is going on in the Roumieh and Rihaniyeh prisons,” said Tarek Shandab, a lawyer to several Islamist inmates. Roumieh is Lebanon’s largest and most notorious civil prison, and Rihaniyeh is the country’s most widely known military one.
A recent United Nations report implicated the Internal Security Forces and the Directorate of Military Intelligence in routinely torturing inmates. U.N. investigators found several car batteries and a wheelchair by the interrogation room at the Defense Ministry headquarters in Beirut, for example. Military personnel said the wheelchair was “to carry disabled people.”
Local enforcement agencies and General Security regularly torture detainees as well, according to Human Rights Watch, especially on suspicions of homosexuality and drug use.
“The problem is much more pervasive than the U.N. report has shown,” said Nadim Houry, the deputy director of the NGO’s Middle East and North Africa Division. “The torture tends to happen during interrogation,” before detainees have been brought to trial, he added.
Detainees suspected of belonging to armed Islamist groups tend to suffer the worst abuse. “Suspected Islamists are always testifying in court of the worst interrogations and torture and beatings,” Shandab said. “It can’t be all fabricated, as what we saw yesterday confirms.”
In June 2013, Nader Bayoumi, 35, died in Army custody after intelligence officers detained him on suspicion of supporting the Salafist Sheikh Ahmad Assir in Sidon. The Army was engaged at that time in fierce clashes with the sheikh’s loyalists that left over 40 soldiers and gunmen dead. Bayoumi’s body was returned to his family showing signs of severe abuse and internal hemorrhage. It is one of the few documented cases of authorities torturing a detainee to death.
Torture is more likely to befall detainees belonging to marginalized groups or without social connections, as well, according to a Human Rights Watch investigation completed in 2013.
“The police do little to hide their disdain of drug users, sex workers and LGBT people,” the report said. “Physical violence was not just used to extract confessions but also as a form of punishment, discipline and behavioral correction.”
“We’ve documented some of the police abuse against vulnerable groups – migrant domestic workers accused of theft, or drug users that don’t have wasta [connections], or Syrian janitors,” Houry said.
Former Justice Minister Shakib Qortbawi said detention authorities have exercised torture “for a long time,” but “not every police officer tortures every [detainee].”
The untrammeled abuses threaten to aggravate social unrest. In Tripoli, radical Sunni sheikhs headed a rally of Islamists, accusing the Future Movement and Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk of turning the mechanisms of the state against the country’s Sunnis.
Torture also undermines the rule of law and court judgments. “Torture is against our law and contravenes human rights,” said Qortbawi, a former head of the Beirut Bar Association.
“Some policemen think torture is the only way to get the truth. The victim thinks, ‘please don’t hit me, I’ll tell you whatever you want.’ So people testify in court that they’ve been tortured,” Qortbawi added. “And the judge will have to figure out what is truthful and throw out what is not. And this takes time.”
“Torture is a crime under Lebanese law and obviously under international law as well,” Houry said. “It corrupts the entire judicial process because then your confessions are obtained under duress.”
Authorities sometimes excuse transgressions, saying torture is a necessary implement of the security services. The government repudiated the 2014 U.N. report on torture, saying it failed to consider Lebanon’s position “in the region’s highly dangerous and sensitive atmosphere and in the shadow of terrorist threats.”
But the practice is counterproductive. “It’s been proven time and again in many countries that ultimately the best fight against terror is good, legal investigative work that does not rely on torture,” Houry said.
Reports of torture in detention, Houry said, are “the best recruiting tools for jihadi groups.”
Law professor and former Justice Minister Ibrahim Najjar described the videos as shocking spoke about a correlation between torture and extremism.
“We’re supposed to rehabilitate them,” Najjar said of the inmates. “But torture turns them into animals. They cannot reintegrate into society.”
Prosecutors have convicted only a handful of abusive officers.
“If there is no case, what can I do?” Qortbawi asked. “Most of the time nobody knows exactly what is going on.”
The Beirut Bar Association has asked the government to move prison authority out of the hands of the Interior Ministry and into those of the Justice Ministry.
“I recommend it,” Qortbawi said. “But it’s not a sufficient solution. You need to train officers and you need to change the guard’s mentality.”
“We have to change our mentality,” he said. “Human rights are much more important than trying to extract some information from a prisoner.”