Lebanon’s death row inmates plead for second chance

8 Jan

Gathering at Roumieh prison urges government to abolish capital punishment
By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
Friday, January 08, 2010

ROUMIEH: Long-time death row inmate Ahmad lives in such constant fear of execution, he’s almost rotting away alive. “I’m suffering depression, sorrow and remorse. I can’t hear or see anymore, I’ve lost my strength and my teeth have fallen out.” Ahmad, which is not his real name, says he has learned from his actions and hopes the Lebanese authorities can show mercy by sparing him from the gallows. “I did what I did at a time of ignorance and I was misguided, but today I fear God and know my boundaries,” he said.
His plea came at a gathering held Thursday inside Lebanon’s largest prison, Roumieh, urging the Lebanese government to move toward formal abolition of the death penalty.
“It’s true that in Lebanon there are, for the time being, no executions, but there is no [official] moratorium,” said Tanya Awad Ghorra, communication officer at the Lebanese Association for Civil Rights (LACR), which organized the gathering.
The current de facto moratorium was not put into place because of humanitarian concerns but rather was politically motivated, she told The Daily Star. “It could turn upside down tomorrow, like it has done before,” Ghorra warned. “If I want to do something to scare people, let’s take five or six of them and execute them.”
A de facto moratorium on use of the death penalty has been in place since 1998, after the European Commission pushed Lebanon to ban the practice following the public hanging of Hassan Abu Jabal and Wissam Nayif Issa in Tabarja. The men’s bodies were left on display for around an hour, with their executions broadcast on Lebanese and international television channels.
The moratorium was violated in 2004 with the hanging of Ahmad Mansour, who was found guilty of killing eight people in Beirut. On the same day, Badieh Hamadeh was executed by firing squad. The executions reinvigorated the movement against capital punishment, with seven MPs proposing a draft bill which would see the practice abolished. The bill, however, was forgotten amid a serious of high-profile political assassinations in 2005, war with Israel in 2006 and ensuing sectarian violence.
Today there are 37 men on death row in Roumieh, as well as seven in Tripoli, all of whom come from impoverished and uneducated backgrounds, Ghorra said. One woman and a number of foreigners are among those on death row. They live in a schizophrenic state between life and death.
“Some of them have only gone to court once.”
One Lebanese citizen also currently faces the death penalty in Saudi Arabia for “witchcraft.” Television psychic Ali Sibat, who was arrested at his hotel room in Medina in May 2008 while in town for religious pilgrimage, was sentenced in November 2009.
Ghorra said renewed calls for an abolition of the death penalty are especially urgent as some judges have been demanding the death penalty for those found guilty of spying for Israel or belonging to the Islamist militia Fatah al-Islam, which fought the Lebanese Army in 2007.
“The death penalty kills, it’s as simple as that,” said Dr. Ogarit Younan on behalf of Walid Slaybi, who with Younan has pioneered the campaign to eradicate capital punishment since 1998. Slaybi urged Lebanon to sign up to the 2007 UN resolution calling for a moratorium on the practice, and to work toward a gradual abolition.
“The authority to kill should not be given to anyone, not to individuals, not to governments, not even to God,” Younan said.
In August 2009, the Justice Ministry launched a campaign to gain support for several draft amendments, including the formal abolition of the death penalty. Justice Minister Ibrahim Najjar proposed removing articles in Lebanon’s Penal Code that allow courts to issue death sentences, saying the maximum sentence should be life with hard labor. Death sentences need the approval of the president, prime minister and justice minister.
Since Lebanon gained independence from France in 1943, it has executed 51 people by hanging and firing squad. Capital punishment was frozen during the country’s 1975-1990 Civil War, and was relatively rare until 1994, when the practice was increased in a supposed effort to deter serious criminal activity.
Following lobbying by anti-death penalty campaigners, the Lebanese Parliament in 2001 voted to do away with the “the killer is to be killed” law. Nevertheless, abolition of the law did not remove capital punishment from the Lebanese penal code.
Joseph, another Roumieh prisoner on death-row, said he’s become numb since his sentencing and maintains he is innocent. “Every human being deserves a second chance.”
Agreeing with him was Interior Minister Ziyad Baroud,  who said: “We don’t want prison to be only a place of punishment, we want it to also be a place of rehabilitation.”
He and Yunan then visited three death-row inmates who had originally been expected to participate in the gathering. Their attendance was cancelled at the last minute because of “security reasons,” officials said.

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