BEIRUT: Torture, an affliction that has beset Lebanon’s prisons and detention centers for decades, is a symptom of impunity and poor institutional design, experts say. Any serious attempt to curb the practice must not only impose accountability through transparency, but rethink the purpose of incarceration itself
“The real problem here is a rampant culture of impunity,” said Nadim Houry, the deputy director of the Middle East section of Human Rights Watch.
“It’s not the job of the police to manage prisons,” said Omar Nashabe, a professor of Criminal Justice, and an adviser to former Interior Minister Ziad Baroud. “A prison should be a correctional institution, which has qualified professionals who know how to manage prisoners and rehabilitate them.”
Lebanon has been a signatory to the United Nations Convention Against Torture since 2000 and to the Optional Protocol to the Convention since 2008. Taken together, they obligate the country to establish an independent commission to investigate human rights violations in detention centers, and to prosecute torturers.
It hasn’t worked out that way. “The Parliament’s Committee on Human Rights declared many years ago that not even animals can live in Lebanon’s prisons,” said Mohammad Safa, the secretary-general for the Khiam Rehabilitation Center for Victims of Torture, a Lebanese NGO. “The government doesn’t care. It’s not a priority,” he said.
Lebanon was supposed to establish an investigatory commission on torture within one year after signing the Optional Protocol – that is, by 2009. By the text of the U.N. convention, the commission of doctors, lawyers, and judges would have a carte blanche to visit any detention center in the country to complete its probes.
Instead, complaints made on behalf of detainees are quietly effaced in a juridical limbo. “They send you in circles,” said Tarek Shandab, a lawyer who often represents detainees with Islamist affiliations.
A video leaked onto the Internet last week showed Internal Security Forces members brutally assaulting and insulting submissive inmates in Roumieh Prison, the country’s largest facility. Shandab said he raised a complaint on behalf Sheikh Omar al-Atrash, one of the victims, two months ago, at the time of the abuse.
“I complained to the Military Court,” he said, and then followed up. “[The court] said, we sent it for investigation at the mukhabarat [the intelligence services].”
“You go to the mukhabarat and they say, ‘We don’t have any record of that here.’ And that’s it,” the outspoken lawyer continued.
“The judiciary hasn’t been doing its role investigating torture,” Houry said. “You have to prosecute people. Once you start putting people behind bars, then you’ll see less of this.”
The officers who assaulted Atrash are now under arrest, thanks to the leaked video, and Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi has promised to prosecute them under criminal law.
But the Beirut Bar Association says higher authorities will have to be held to account. “It’s not just the guards,” said the Association’s president, George Jreij. “You need to look at the whole administration, at every level.”
To Nashabe, though, accountability is not enough. He has urged the government to release the ISF from its prison-watch responsibilities altogether, saying the duty requires the care of a professionally trained correctional force.
“You cannot hold people accountable if it’s not their job,” Nashabe said.
“Police sometimes resort to violence because they don’t have the expertise or qualifications, or know how to deal with the prisoners.”
It stems from the country’s dated view of incarceration. “Prisons in Lebanon are detention facilities,” he said, “not correction centers.”
In correctional institutions, officers work with guards to treat and rehabilitate prisoners and de-escalate confrontations.
“Specialists use other tools [than violence]. They talk, understand the problems and the conditions of the prisoners, and they know how to deal with the situation,” Nashabe said.
At a news conference after the Roumieh videos were disclosed, Jreij called for the Justice Ministry to receive authority over the prisons from the Interior Ministry. “This means moving [the prisons] from the purview of a security state to a state of laws,” he said.
Former Justice Minister Shakib Qortbawi, who oversaw an aborted attempt to enact such a transfer early this decade, said the simple act won’t be enough. “We have to change the mentality of the guards. Whether it’s the Interior Ministry or Justice Ministry, the prisons will still need guards,” he said.
“The most important thing is to train and hire correctional authorities,” Nashabe said.
“It doesn’t matter who this is under – interior or justice.”
Safa, of the Khiam Center, says for Lebanon to meet its treaty obligations, it will have to broaden its definition of abuse.
“Torture is not just ‘torture.’ Six percent of prisoners have been held without trial for over five years. This is torture. And prisoners are given bad food and ill treatment, too. Torture is not only to choke or beat them,” he said.
If the government now undertakes prison reform, it will not be without precedent. Former Interior Minister Baroud recommended building new prisons, Nashabe said, “to the standards of correctional institutions. It was a whole new architecture of incarceration.”
Asked what the result was, Nashabe said: “None. [The recommendations] are there in the minutes of the Cabinet. They are there in the Interior Ministry.”
“The prisons are still managed by Decree 14310, issued in 1949,” he said. “No comment.”