September 26, 2009
By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
BEIRUT: Lebanon’s prisons are wildly overcrowded, and most of those behind bars have either completed their sentences or are awaiting trial, a report submitted to the Lebanese government said. An-Nahar on Thursday published the embarrassing details from a damning report by General Ashraf Rifi, head of the Internal Security Forces (ISF), presented to Beirut leaders late last month.
Lebanon’s jails have a total capacity to house 3,653 inmates, but the current number of incarcerated stands at 5,324, Rifi said. In Roumieh prison alone, about 3,500 inmates have been squeezed into a facility with a capacity for 1,500.
In addition, two-thirds of all prisoners have not been formally charged and are awaiting sentencing, the ISF chief said, adding that the normal proportion of pretrial inmates should be one-third.
Some 250 foreign prisoners have completed their sentences but have not been released, mainly because of deportation complications, Rifi added. Most of them are in prison because they do not have the necessary paperwork to remain in Lebanon, he added.
An-Nahar quoted security sources who cited corruption within Roumieh’s administration, saying some ISF officers had provided detainees with drugs, cell phones and maps of the prison’s surroundings.
The report also drew attention to the presence of 280 Islamists in Roumieh who are allowed to mix freely with other prisoners. Despite being a high-security facility, Roumieh lacks electronic surveillance equipment and a professional administration, the report added. The situation in the unpredictable facility could “explode” and cause a “catastrophic” tragedy, Rifi warned.
The ISF chief recommended Islamists be separated from other prisoners, kept under direct surveillance and rehabilitated, partially through visits from Islamic leaders who could “direct them toward the true spirit of Islam.” He also called for a new prison to house those with “special cases” and urged the judiciary to speed up trial dates.
The urgent need to reform Lebanon’s penitentiaries was brought to the spotlight last month when a Fatah al-Islam militant escaped from Roumieh. Taha Ahmad Haji Sleiman fled after standing on the shoulders of fellow inmates and jumping over a prison wall. He was caught a day later. Seven other Fatah al-Islam prisoners also tried to escape but were caught by guards.
Lebanon’s prison system was further embarrassed when two inmates escaped from a hospital ward on Monday. Hisham Ali Wehbe, 29, and Ali Hussein al-Sahili, 27, escaped from Nawfal Hospital in Bir Hassan on Monday morning, although Wehbe was recaptured Thursday. – With additional reporting by Carol Rizk