Tag Archives: prison

Lebanese prisons teetering close to disaster

26 Feb

Rights group demands closure of two ‘unacceptable’ detention facilities
By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
Wednesday, February 24, 2010

BEIRUT: Lebanese prisons are crowded to almost twice their capacity and are dangerously neglected and mismanaged by the authorities, a damning report said on Tuesday.

The authoritative report, entitled, “Prisons in Lebanon: Legal and Humanitarian Concerns,” released by the Lebanese Center for Human Rights (LCHR), also demanded the swift closure of two “unacceptable” detention facilities. The 108-page document, researched over a ten-month period, found that while Lebanon’s 20 prisons have an official capacity for 3,653 inmates, the real number incarcerated was 5,324.

In the notorious Roumieh prison alone, about 3,500 inmates are sardined into a facility with a capacity for 1,500.

It added that as most prisons had a capacity that did not match the minimum surface requirements stipulated in the 1977 Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, the “actual capacity” of Lebanese prisons was 2,714 inmates.

“Prisons are a major problem in Lebanon but it’s more a management problem than because there are too many crimes,” Wadih al-Asmar, secretary general of the Lebanese Center for Human Rights, told The Daily Star.

He called the prison system a “vicious circle” in which stifling living conditions led to further criminal behavior amongst incarcerated persons and thus longer sentences. “It’s getting worse and worse,” Asmar said.

“This overcrowding of Lebanese prisoners is an issue that should be addressed and solved urgently, not by building new prisons, but by tackling its roots at the administrative, legal and judicial levels,” CLDH said.

The reason for such cramped conditions is largely because 66 percent of those detained are awaiting trial and 13 percent are detained arbitrarily beyond their sentence, the report found. Foreigners count for 100 percent of those held arbitrarily after completing their sentences, with 81 percent having been convicted of illegal entry and/or stay.

“In Iraq, I had a house and a good job,” the report quoted one incarcerated refugee as saying. “The war forced me to leave my country and I am punished for it.”

CLDH said that because most of those detained arbitrarily were poor and without family support, they had to resort to “begging” within the prison.

“As I have nothing, no one to support me, and to earn a little food, I began to serve inmates in my cell. I wash the toilets and prepare tea. They call me the slave,” it quoted a Bangladeshi inmate as telling researchers.

“There are a lot of simple and very easy things that we can do in Lebanon to avoid more prisoners,” Asmar said, drawing attention to the need for an improved legal aid system to assist inmates who cannot afford lawyers. It also noted the lack of commitment by lawyers provided through current legal assistance programs. Because of a lack of incentive, they often don’t bother to meet their clients or show up for hearings.

The report also noted that despite an unofficial de facto moratorium on the death penalty since 2004, 61 men and one woman were given capital punishment sentences between April and September 2009.

CLDH called for the urgent need to close the Defense Ministry Prison, notorious for widespread torture, and the General Security Retention Center, where foreigners are “held” underground for months. Not considered an official prison, the Retention Center’s poor management is the second leading cause of overcrowded prisons, the report said. The facility has no hot water and in contravention to Lebanese law, “aggressive and brutal” male guards are tasked with supervising women detainees. “We cannot accept to put people underground like animals,” Asmar said. The report calls for the facility to be closed immediately and replaced by another retention center “built and managed in compliance with international standards.”

Addressing the Defense Ministry prisons, Asmar said intelligence officials continued to torture and detain suspects. “For decades the intelligence services have appeared to be out of control, showing no respect for legal procedures.” CLDH noted that whistle-blowers are also targeted, citing the case of former detainee Adonis Akra. In November 2009, Akra was ordered to pay a fine of 10 million Lebanese pounds for undermining the army’s reputation by detailing his experience of torture in the book, “When I Became Number 16.”

CLDH’s report corroborates conclusions reached by General Ashraf Rifi, head of the Internal Security Forces, who submitted assessed Lebanon’s prisons conditions in August 2009.

Among other points, Rifi’s report warned that 280 Islamists in Roumieh are allowed to mix freely with other prisoners. Despite being a high-security facility, Roumieh lacks electronic surveillance equipment and a professional administration, he said, adding the situation could “explode” and cause a “catastrophic” tragedy.

“Jails in Lebanon need renewal, rehabilitation, utility and social services,” Asmar said. “The role of jails as a social rehabilitative institution is not being taken into serious consideration.” – Additional reporting by Wissam Stetie

Advertisements

Lebanon’s dismal prisons

26 Sep

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

Syrian blogger lives precarious life as exile in Lebanon

27 Dec

Abdullah family has paid heavy price for speaking out
By Dalila Mahdawi
Saturday, December 27, 2008

Syrian blogger lives precarious life as exile in Lebanon
 

BEIRUT: Only 26 years old, Syrian human rights activist Mohammad al-Abdullah has already been imprisoned twice, beaten, and forced into hiding in neighboring Lebanon.

Jail has unfortunately become a defining feature of the Abdullah family, which has been all but splintered by the repeated arrests of its male members because of their calls for political reform in Syria.

When Abdullah’s father Ali was jailed in 2005, the son formed the Committee for Families of Political Prisoners in Syria, only to be himself marched off to a cell two days after the launch. His father received a presidential pardon six months later, along with 190 other political prisoners.

Ali, who has been banned from traveling since 1996, was re-arrested in 2006 and then in December 2007 with 11 other members of the Damascus Declaration, which calls for “democratic and radical change” in Syria. All received 30-month prison sentences.

Syria, which has been under the Baathist rule of the Assad family since the 1970s, has long treated dissidents and human rights activists with an iron fist. “In a transparent bid to silence its critics, the government is jailing democracy activists for simply attending a meeting,” Human Rights Watch has said.

“They took my father hostage in order to get me,” Mohammad told The Daily Star. “I stayed in jail for six and a half months, two floors underground in a cell smaller than me. After 18 days, they brought someone else and we stayed together there for 42 days. There was no light, the toilet was in the same place – it was terrible.”

During his imprisonment, Mohammad said he was beaten and forced to sign a document he was not allowed to read. “Later I found out it said I would work for the intelligence as an informer.”

Before his arrest, Abdullah had been a law student at the Lebanese University. With his final year exam approaching, he launched an eight-day hunger strike to be allowed to sit the test. “The judge said I would be released on October 4, the day before the exam,” said Abdullah, who wasn’t released until October 5. “I called a friend from university who told me the exam had been pushed back two days, but the authorities monitored the phone call and prevented me from leaving the country.”

In January 2007, Syria granted him permission to make one journey outside the country. “I came to Beirut on  February 1 and have stayed here since,” he said. Without a passport, he is stranded. “The only place I can go is Syria and if I go back I’ll be arrested.” He has been told by a friend who works at Damascus’ airport that there are 13 separate warrants for his arrest.

Abdullah’s younger brother Omar, meanwhile, is currently half-way through a five-year sentence for blogging. He is being held at Sidnaya military prison, the scene of deadly riots this July. “I haven’t heard anything from or about him since then,” said Mohammad. For the first time in the interview, Mohammad’s voice wobbled, his smile vanishing. “I cannot stop thinking about him.”

 

At the third annual Arab Free Press Forum held in Beirut earlier this month, Abdullah spoke of the rising importance of bloggers in the Middle East. Syrian bloggers had “become a source of information for Syrian citizens, despite all the constraints and obstacles for even just being on the internet,” he said. The Syrian authorities require Internet cafŽ managers to monitor the online activities of clients and register their personal details. They have also blocked many prominent blog sites, along with numerous Arabic newspapers, Wikipedia and Facebook.

Repressive governments appear increasingly wary of bloggers, as there are currently more online journalists and bloggers in prison than journalists from any other field. According to a study by the Committee to Protect Journalists, 56 out of 125 journalists imprisoned worldwide worked online, “a tally that surpasses the number of print journalists for the first time.” The reason for the crackdown on bloggers was simple, Abdullah said. “In general, bloggers write about issues that journalists don’t dare write about – about torture, corruption, subjects that the authorities cannot tolerate.”

While Abdullah publishes his blog, “I’m leaving and I’m not coming back,” under his real name, he said Syrian bloggers mainly wrote under pseudonyms. Readers of his blog, which deals with political prisoners and human rights in Syria, were so afraid of reprisals that many left their comments anonymously or sent them to his email account. Abdullah believes Syrian intelligence officers also read his blog, as he received “horrible” comments frequently. “I leave them up for people to see,” he said.

Being a Syrian in Lebanon was not easy, said Abdullah, adding he had experienced some racism. Despite that and the very real possibility of being followed by Syrian intelligence officers, he tries to lead a normal life. “I’m not paranoid, but at the same time I know the Syrians are still here … and in my opinion they are stronger than before. So I have to take care.” Abdullah said he would apply for a passport when the Syrian Embassy opened next week, but said he was not “optimistic.”

Abdullah hoped the thawing of relations between Syria and the West translated into greater rights for Syrians. “I’m not against Western engagement with Syria but it has to be conditional on freedom and human rights. Sometimes I get the feeling that the West is blocking democracy in the Middle East by supporting dictators,” Abdullah said, citing European support for the Tunisian, Saudi and Libyan regimes.

 

For Abdullah’s blog, see http://raye7wmishraj3.wordpress.com

Freeing the minds behind the bars of Lebanon’s most notorious prison

5 Dec

Drama therapy gives convicted criminals opportunity to discover, communicate their identities
By Dalila Mahdawi

ROUMIEH: In a large room hazy with cigarette smoke, 45 actors and musicians wait for their play director, Zeina Daccache, to arrive and begin rehearsals. Painted on the wall is a quote from Abraham Lincoln, “I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.” There is nothing particularly remarkable about such a scenario, but it is the setting that is extraordinary. The men waiting have been found guilty of drug dealing, rape, manslaughter or theft and are all serving sentences in Roumieh Central Prison.

A drama therapist who worked previously with drug addicts and bereaved mothers following the summer 2006 war, Daccache had a dream to bring theater to Lebanon’s biggest and most notorious men’s prison. Today, with funding from the European Union (EU) to l’Association pour la Defense des Droits et des Libertes (ADDL) and in the framework of the Afkar II program managed by the Office of the Minister of State for Administrative Reform, her dream is being realized.

After three months of auditions in 2007, Daccache’s cast members began rehearsals for “12 Angry Lebanese,” adapted from the 1950s Reginald Rose play, “12 Angry Men.” Some of the prisoners play jury members deciding the fate of a 19-year-old accused of patricide, while others have together written and composed songs about prison, human rights, capital punishment and justice. Some deliver illuminating non-fictional monologues about their lives before prison or about their crimes.

The idea of the play, said Daccache, was to give the men a platform where “they could communicate identities other than that of the convicted criminal.”

Prisoner Atef agreed: “Each person has multiple identities. Maybe when people watch our play, they will see the good things in us and what we are capable of.”

Although only a fraction of Roumieh’s prisoners were involved in “12 Angry Lebanese,” Daccache emphasized the unifying force of the play.

“We have Nigerians, Iraqis, Bangladeshi, Palestinians, Egyptians and Syrians acting, as well as Lebanese,” said Daccache. “These 45 men collectively bring the voices of the 4,000 prisoners in Roumieh together.”

When Daccache finally arrives, she is greeted with a joyous uproar from her actors. She has clearly made a good impression on them, for they hang on her every word and respect her instructions. With the play set to begin performances in February, there is not much time left to rehearse, and Daccache, or Abu Ali (Father of Ali) as her actors have affectionately nicknamed her, immediately begins to organize the cast. In one corner of the guarded room, talented musicians and singers launch into the first song of the play, a tranquil guitar and oud melody. Those acting as the jurors rehearse in the center of the room, stopping every now and then to take in Daccache’s comments and re-read their lines.

Although drama therapy programs exist in the prisons of many Western countries, Daccache’s program at Roumieh is currently the only one in Lebanon. Watching the rehearsals, it is clear she is providing a vital platform for her cast members to educate and express themselves.

According to inmate Jamal, when the prison guards announced that auditions for a play were to be held, “over 150 people tried out, simply for the sake of getting out of their cells.”

But those who made the cast quickly became engaged in their roles. Other than some activities organized by nongovernmental organizations and computer and English classes taught by the prisoners themselves, there are very few activities for Roumieh’s 4,000 prisoners.

Many of the prisoners could not read or write before the play, said Daccache, who has helped them learn to read their lines. Three classrooms are reportedly currently under construction, however, and many are hoping Daccache’s program will secure enough funding to continue after February.

“Zeina sets our minds free,” said Jamal. “She makes us feel as though we are not in prison. When we start rehearsing, we forget our surroundings and concentrate on working together and giving our best.”

Justin, a Nigerian prisoner, said Daccache was the first person who had visited him in prison. “Before her, no one would come to see us. I know we are prisoners, but we would like more organizations to come and work with us,” he said, adding that Daccache’s presence had revealed talents in the prisoners no one knew existed.

Daccache is also conducting a study on whether her prisoner-actors are benefiting from the drama therapy program. So far, initial results have been overwhelmingly positive.

Speaking to the prisoners, the impact that the program on them is having is obvious.

“I used to always have nightmares about when and how they would kill me,” said one prisoner facing the death penalty. “Since Zeina came, I don’t think about it anymore.”

“One year ago I still thought like a criminal,” said another inmate. “Now I don’t want people like Zeina to come and find me in prison for a new crime ever again. I’ve learned many things that perhaps if I’d learned at a younger age, would have prevented me from ending up here. I can set targets and reach them.”

Some of the cast members indicated they were even thinking about acting careers when they finished their sentences.

Despite the program’s overwhelming success, Daccache said that getting it up and running had proved difficult.

“This is the product of meeting after meeting,” she said. “Without the cooperation of [General Prosecutor] Said Mirza, Judge Joyce Tabet, [Internal Security Forces (ISF) Police Chief] Antoine Chacour, [Director General of the ISF] Ashraf Rifi, all the police on the ground, the Lebanese Conservatoire and the ISF Orchestra, none of this would have ever happened.” Daccache said she hoped she would find the necessary funding to continue the project.

As Daccache prepared to leave at the end of rehearsals, there was a discernable feeling of optimism in the air. Working with Daccache, said one prisoner, had taught him to accept advice and criticism, something that would have infuriated him in the past.

“We are here to express that we are human beings,” he said. “We have made many mistakes in our lives but we are still human beings.”

For information about the conditions to see the play, call 03162573.