Tag Archives: IPS

Prisons See Institutionalised Injustice

18 Jul

In April, the biggest prison riot in Lebanese history broke out in Roumieh penitentiary,  prompting relatives of inmates to protest conditions inside [EPA]By Dalila Mahdawi

When Joanna Bailey (not her real name), a British journalist formerly based in Lebanon, became the victim of a sexual assault in Beirut, she sought help at a local police station. As she was giving her statement, the police dragged her assailant into the room. The man had been beaten up, and was subjected to further violence in front of her.

“One of the officers took off his belt and began beating him with it for what felt like ten minutes.” When Bailey asked the officers to stop, “they said it was the only way he would learn,” she recalls.

“After that they made him strip down to his underwear in front of me and jog on the spot for about 30 minutes.” Bailey left feeling not only profoundly disturbed by the assault on her, but distressed at the extrajudicial punishment meted out to her attacker.

Such stories of ritual humiliation, mistreatment and beatings are familiar to many detainees in Lebanon. A lack of training and poor human rights awareness among police officers means many turn to violence to obtain confessions from suspects.

According to a report released earlier this year by the Lebanese Center for Human Rights (CLDH), around 60 percent of detainees experience some form of torture or mistreatment. One death as a result of torture was recorded in 2010, the report said.

Those suspected of espionage, drug dealing and religious extremism are most likely to be subjected to abuse by the police. All this takes place in a culture of impunity, says Wadih Al-Asmar, secretary- general of CLDH: “Police officers are not well trained and there is no real accountability. In the very few cases that have been investigated, the results remain confidential.”

Prison conditions are just as bleak as those at police stations, with inmates being locked away without trial for years in grossly overcrowded and unhygienic conditions. With almost no rehabilitation services available, most prisoners spend their days confined to their cells, chain-smoking, chatting and, when tempers flare, fighting.

In the last three years, 400 people arrested on security charges have been subjected to procedure violations that made their detention arbitrary, the CLDH report found.

“It’s a disaster,” says Ghassan Moukheiber, an MP who heads the Lebanese Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights and who has produced a detailed report on prison reform. “The situation is dire. I qualify prisons as fitting into the following categories – bad, very bad or inhumane. The prison conditions are themselves equal to torture, cruel and degrading treatment.”

Lebanon’s 20 prisons can officially hold 3,653 inmates, but in 2010 provided an uncomfortable abode to some 5,324 prisoners, an earlier CLDH report found. Roumieh, Lebanon’s biggest men’s prison, built with a maximum capacity of 1,500 inmates, held about 3,500. According to Moukheiber, with the exception of Roumieh, none of Lebanon’s prisons were built specifically as penitentiaries.

Lebanon is a signatory to the UN Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, as well as its Optional Protocol, but has not yet fulfilled its obligation to establish a National Preventative Mechanism against torture. It is also several years overdue in submitting a report to the Convention’s Committee on the measures it is taking to implement the treaty.

In a damning 2009 report to the Lebanese government by General Ashraf Rifi, head of the Internal Security Forces (ISF), the body which overlooks prison administration, two-thirds of all prisoners were found to be awaiting sentencing. Around 250 foreign prisoners remained in prison after completing their sentences, largely due to deportation complications, Rifi said.

Most were imprisoned for lacking the necessary paperwork to remain in Lebanon and included a number of refugees and asylum seekers.

With minimal funding being allocated to penitentiaries, Moukheiber told IPS that the Lebanese state was failing to provide prisoners with the vital rehabilitation, health and educational services they needed in order to reintegrate back into society.

But despite the gloomy outlook, criminologist Omar Nashabe insists slow improvements are under way. The number of inmates at Roumieh has fallen, he says. “That’s a big step forward because it allows the prison administration to better control the prison.”

However, basic services and security remain problematic. Prisoners often have to undertake hunger strikes or other extreme measures in order to access medical care, and escape attempts are frequent.

In April, Roumieh saw one of the biggest prison riots in Lebanese history. Prisoners were able to break down doors and take control of much of the prison in a stand-off which resulted in the death of four inmates.

Although the government has allocated five million dollars to refurbish the prison, Nashabe admits the figure won’t even cover repair costs. “Some of the doors inside the prison are still without locks and there are still problems with electricity and water.”

Nevertheless, Nashabe says that the riot prompted the Lebanese judicial authorities to be more flexible with incarceration as a pre-trial measure and punishment. A five-year plan to transfer management of the prisons from the ISF to a specialised body within the Justice Ministry is also under way, he says.

But according to Moukheiber, “it is not a panacea just to switch prison administration from one ministry to another. The appropriate solution is much more complex,” involving a string of measures, including building new facilities, improving access to healthcare, rehabilitation services and legal aid, and specialised training of prison staff and judges.

For many prisoners, such improvements will come too late. Twenty-seven year-old Marwan (not his real name) has been in prison for two years awaiting sentencing for drug dealing. “It’s unacceptable that I haven’t been sentenced yet,” he told IPS via a smart phone he’d managed to smuggle behind bars.

The police “haven’t got any evidence against me, only testimonies from a few people.” Marwan, who hasn’t yet been able to meet with a lawyer, says he expects to be incarcerated “at least another three years.” (END)

Advertisements

Becoming the world’s first human camera

8 Feb

What a headache: Bilal's camera implant (Image copyright 3rdi)

Dalila Mahdawi

NEW YORK, 7 Feb (IPS) – Wafaa Bilal hasn’t had a decent night’s sleep in about two months. After becoming the first person to have a camera surgically implanted into the back of his head, the Iraqi- American artist is learning the hard way just how much of a headache modern technology can be.

“It’s still painful,” he tells IPS, pointing to the three titanium bolts that have been inserted into his cranium to hold the camera in place.

Bilal undertook the dramatic operation as part of a year- long project entitled 3rdi. The camera takes photographs every minute of the view behind Bilal’s head. The images, comprising everything from uninspiring shots of his kitchen cupboards to unnerving angles of objects and passers-by, are then uploaded onto the 3rdi website and streamed to Qatar’s newly inaugurated contemporary art museum, Mathaf.

3rdi is, in many ways, a reflection of Bilal’s own traumatic experiences of loss. Having been raised in a conservative family under Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical rule, the soft- spoken artist was forced to flee during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait after publicly rejecting his conscription into the army. He spent two years living in a makeshift refugee camp in the Saudi Arabian desert before being granted asylum in the United States.

“It was one of the toughest experiences of my life,” recalls Bilal, who is also an assistant professor of photography at New York University’s Tisch School of The Arts. In the camp, “We were subjected to very harsh treatment by Saudi soldiers and many people lost their lives. Art became a way to remind myself I was still alive.”

With little to remind him of the places and faces he had to abandon so abruptly, 3rdi has become Bilal’s way of recording chaotic, poignant and yet often banal moments of departure. “Individually, they might not look significant,” he says of the images, but when taken together, they form “quite a nice mosaic of someone’s life.”

Since unveiling the project, 3rdi has evolved to speak about many other aspects of modern life, such as government surveillance of its citizens (the camera tracks Bilal’s whereabouts via GPS) and the aggressive intrusion of technology.

“There is no such thing as a private life anymore,” says Bilal. “Instead of creating something to serve us, these machines have enslaved us.”

Although the camera’s physical presence leaves the artist susceptible to infection and sleepless nights, he insists the pain is an integral part of the 3rdi project. “Performance is about endurance,” he explains. “It’s a physical reminder of what you are doing.”

It’s not the first time Bilal has used his own body as his canvas. Physical intervention has been a central, and often controversial, feature of much of his work.

In 2010, Bilal held a 24-hour performance in which he had the names of Iraqi cities tattooed on his back. More than 100,000 dots marking Iraqi casualties were also tattooed on with invisible ink, symbolising the anonymous victims of a war that most Americans feel so far removed from. Bilal also has plans to tattoo on some 5,000 dots in homage to the U.S. soldiers also killed in the U.S.-led war.

For an earlier project, called “Shoot an Iraqi/Domestic Tension”, Bilal confined himself in a prison-like cell for 30 days and was subjected to the whims of his audience, who could shoot a remote-controlled paintball gun at him from the internet or gallery. Following newspaper articles about the project, hackers infiltrated the software and programmed the gun to shoot at Bilal once every minute.

“The hope is you build a platform not to engage those already engaged in political dialogue,” but to attract those who typically shy away, he says. It seemed he succeeded in that attempt: by the end of the exhibition, over 65,000 people from more than 130 countries had fired at Bilal.

His work became more overtly political following the killing of his younger brother by a U.S. drone missile in Iraq in 2004. Bilal says he wanted to bring people living in “the comfort zone” into the realm of the “conflict zone”, Iraq.

With that goal in mind, the artist has also subjected himself to water boarding, the simulated-drowning torture technique former U.S. president George W. Bush notoriously admitted to using in Iraq.

“My work is driven from within as a concerned person, as someone who has been directly affected by his surroundings,” Bilal says. “My job has to become a mirror to reflect that social condition.”

It may be another 10 months before Bilal can enjoy a proper night’s rest again, but if having eyes at the back of his head has taught the artist anything, it is to savour the present more.

“Most of the time we don’t exist in the present, and I think in the process we fail to exist in the place we are in,” he says. “I think this is a call to slow down, look at these corners of our lives and live in the moment we are in.”

3rdi is online until December 2011.

http://www.3rdi.me/ and http://wafaabilal.com/

Eyes on the back of his head (Image copyright 3rdi)

Migrant Women Dying on the Job

21 Nov

By Dalila Mahdawi

BEIRUT, Nov 21 (IPS) – October and November have been bloody months for Lebanon’s migrant domestic workers – over the last five weeks nine women have died. Most deaths have been reported as suicide.

The body of 20-year old Anget R. of Madagascar was found hanging from a rope at her employer’s bedroom door Nov. 11. A newspaper in Madagascar reported the deaths of two other Malagasy women in October. One, identified only as Mampionona, was said to have fallen from the balcony of her employer’s house. The other, identified as Vololona, died after reportedly jumping from the balcony.

Sunit Bholan of Nepal, who was 22, allegedly committed suicide Oct. 8. Ethiopian Kassaye Etsegenet, 23, died after reportedly jumping from the seventh floor of her employer’s house Oct. 15. She left behind a suicide note citing personal reasons.

On Oct. 21, 26-year-old Zeditu Kebede Matente of Ethiopia was found dead, hanging from an olive tree. Two days later 30-year old Saneet Mariam also of Ethiopia died after allegedly falling from the balcony of her employer’s house.

The list goes on: Nepalese national Mina Rokaya, 24, and then Tezeta Yalmoya of Ethiopia, 26 – who also died, it was said, when she fell from the balcony.

“It’s a national tragedy,” Nadim Houry, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, tells IPS.

There are an estimated 200,000 women working in Lebanon as live-in housekeepers, cooks and nannies. Most are from Sri Lanka, Ethiopia and the Philippines, though increasing numbers are arriving from Nepal, Madagascar and Bangladesh.

The workers leave their families behind to travel to Lebanon and look after strangers. Many are treated well by their employers; others are less fortunate.

Once in Lebanon, the women may be confined to their employer’s house, and have their passports confiscated and their salaries withheld, increasing their sense of isolation. Many women say they are not allowed out of the house, or get a day off. Complaints of sexual or psychological abuse are not uncommon.

Lebanon’s controversial sponsorship system means that workers are bound to their employers, and face incarceration if they leave. “It’s distressing to note that suicide for some is the only recourse to release from an abusive situation,” says Azfar Khan, senior migration specialist at the International Labour Organisation (ILO) regional office for the Arab states.

Police investigations are often inadequate, usually taking into consideration only the employer’s testimony and failing to cross-check it with neighbours or the worker’s friends or family, says Houry. If the woman is lucky enough to survive a suicide attempt, the police almost never provide her with a translator, or ask whether she had been abused. Cases where abusive employers are imprisoned “are the exception, not the rule,” says Houry.

The recent spate of deaths is not the first. A HRW study last year found that at least 95 women had died between Jan. 1, 2007 and Aug. 15, 2008 – a rate of more than one a week.

Aimee, a freelance domestic worker from Madagascar, has been in Lebanon for almost 12 years. As a community leader now, she helps workers in distress by offering a sympathetic ear and advice.

Many of the women she counsels do not receive a regular salary, or have been abused by their employers or recruitment agency officials. Agencies “check the women’s bags for phone numbers or addresses of their consulate,” Aimee tells IPS. Any numbers found are destroyed to prevent the woman seeking help. “How can they ask someone to work so far away from home and treat them like that?”

Lebanon’s growing notoriety as a hotbed for abuse of rights has compelled the governments of Ethiopia and the Philippines to issue bans on their nationals working in Lebanon. But this hasn’t stemmed the tide of migrants entering through third countries. Bans in any case only “transfer the problem from one nationality to another,” says Houry, because recruitment agencies simply look to new countries for women workers.

One reason for suicides is the false expectations recruitment agencies raise among migrant workers. Many women are led to believe they will work as nurses or as other professionals. “A lot of these women are recruited in rural areas – it’s like taking someone and plucking them into a totally different environment,” says Houry.

One Nepalese woman he spoke to after she broke her leg trying to escape her employer’s house said “she saw the snow on the mountains and thought if she could cross the mountain, she’d be in Nepal.”

Lebanese labour laws do not cover domestic workers. Without any legal protection, foreign workers are vulnerable to exploitation.

“The ILO has been pushing for domestic workers to be covered under labour law – not just in Lebanon but in other countries of the region – so that at least institutionally they enjoy protection and have the option to have their grievances addressed in court,” says Khan. “They are workers, so why should the labour law not apply to them?”

Lebanon has signed the International Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment, but has yet to move towards signing the Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families – a measure that would obligate it to take protection measures for the migrant community.

But more practical measures the Lebanese could take are to create a national hotline for distressed workers and a labour inspection force to monitor the treatment of migrants, says Houry. “More broadly, society has to mobilise. Not everyone is guilty of ill-treatment, but everyone has to feel responsible. People need to start speaking out and express that this is unacceptable.”