Lebanese lawyers call for reform after prison break highlights flawed penal policy

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A day before Lebanon marked its 77th Independence Day on November 22, news broke that 69 detainees had escaped from the Baabda Courthouse.

The breakout triggered fears and panic among the public, who were instructed by the Internal Security Forces [ISF] to remain alert and report any sighting of the escapees – whose photos and names were published – to security forces deployed to the Baabda area to hunt for the fugitives on the outskirts of Beirut.

A week later, a senior ISF source and lawyers told Al Arabiya English that the incident showed the need for prison reform in the country, pointing to delays and overcrowding among other systematic failures.

Members of the Lebanese police gather outside Baabda prison, Lebanon, November 21, 2020. (Reuters)
Members of the Lebanese police gather outside Baabda prison, Lebanon, November 21, 2020. (Reuters)

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Long delays for detainees pending trials

An ISF senior source, who requested anonymity, told Al Arabiya English that the breakout happened at Baabda Detention, where suspects are detained in lockups pending trials or investigations.

Suspects in these trials are often locked up for a period ranging from four days to a month before facing a trial, he explained.

The source linked these delays to the breakout, suggesting that keeping detainees in the same facility for long periods might have allowed them to work out how to escape.

“The groups of runaways involved detainees, who’ve been locked up for months and some for a year. The fact that they have been detained for longer periods could’ve exposed certain flaws in the wardens’ movements, formations and shifts … some of the wardens’ weaknesses as well. Such circumstances, would eventually, lead to groups or affiliations lobbying and preparing for breakouts … such security incidents are prone to happen in any country,” he said.

Joceline Al-Rai, a lawyer who represented one of the escapees, told Al Arabiya English that any detainee would consider absconding if given the chance.

“The Penal Code does not incriminate a detainee for escaping since it is the superintendent’s duty to prevent breakouts. When a detainee escapes, he/she is tried for wrecking the detention, behaving rowdily or assaulting a warden, but doesn’t stand trial for escaping. Congested lockups, delays in referrals to court or deciding on bail requests and the current circumstances push a detainee to not want to remain in custody and run away,” explained Al-Rai.

The ISF source added that similar incidents could happen in any of Lebanon’s facilities, which suffer from the same delays in investigations, cases’ backlogs, delays in release orders and bail requests.

“Before the COVID-19 outburst, we had breakouts and absconding attempts in smaller groups … but due to the aforementioned reasons and coronavirus spread and its health risks, such attempts were expected to increase. The existing circumstances has helped increase such breakouts but in ordinary situations they don’t and aren’t supposed to happen when proper law enforcement procedures are applied sternly,” said the source.

A Lebanese flag flies over Khiam prison, in the southern town of Khiam, Lebanon. (AP)
A Lebanese flag flies over Khiam prison, in the southern town of Khiam, Lebanon. (AP)

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Security procedures “nonexistent”

The breakout has shone the light on the failures of the Lebanese detainment system.

According to Al-Rai, Lebanon’s current penal code currently falls short of implementing the protective measures stipulated by international conventions.

Another lawyer experienced in criminal cases, Zeina Mouannes, described the current security procedure as “scarce to nonexistent,” made worse by authorities’ “inhumane treatment” of detainees.

“The integrity of the justice system is largely diminished by corruption, and notably the misuse of public power for private gain,” she told Al Arabiya English.

She elaborated that corruption lays a heavy burden on the judicial system and the ability of judges to act independently as individuals without surrendering to political pressure.

“This has completely skewed the objectivity of legal proceedings because it often leads to unethical conduct by officials of the justice system which consequently results in to mistrust between the public and the judicial system,” she added.

Members of the Lebanese police stand next to a damaged car in Hadath, Lebanon, November 21, 2020. (Reuters)
Members of the Lebanese police stand next to a damaged car in Hadath, Lebanon, November 21, 2020. (Reuters)

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Calls for reform

The ISF source called on the relevant authorities to tackle what he described as the “imperfections and weaknesses” swiftly and justly by speeding up litigations and not keeping detainees in lockups for over four days, in accordance with the Code of Criminal Procedures.

“When detainees are referred to courts promptly, investigations are speeded up and bail requests are reviewed rapidly, then that would decongest lockups and eventually reduce breakouts,” he concluded, justifying that sometimes ‘compelling circumstances’ lead to such mishaps.

Al-Rai also called for reform, saying that the best way to stop further breakouts is to refine the lockups’ internal conditions, tighten security measures and increase the number of skilled superintendents

“What prevent breakouts are the stern and appropriate procedures enforced by the detentions’ administrations,” she said.

Likewise, Mouannes called on the authorities to implement an old decree that stipulated the Directorate of Prisons should be put under the supervision of the Ministry of Justice rather than the Ministry of Interior.

“The decree came up with the administration of ‘Directorate of Prisons’ but until present it hasn’t been put into effect … which explains why in practice the administration of prisons remains under the Interior Ministry’s supervision,” she noted.

Mouannes also recommended releasing prisoners who have already served the majority of their sentence, protecting the functional independence of the judicial system, shortening detention periods and speeding up litigation processes.

On Tuesday, ISF said 28 fugitives remain at large, 36 were re-arrested while five were killed in an accident when their getaway car rammed into a tree. Four escapees had turned themselves in shortly after the breakout.

Following a briefing by caretaker Interior Minister Mohammad Fehmi, President Michel Aoun ordered that search operations and rearrests be made instantly. He also ordered an investigation into the incident.

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