Over the past few weeks, riots have broken out in Lebanon’s dangerously overcrowded prisons as fears rise over what a coronavirus outbreak inside the prisons may look like. Now, the government is working to release thousands of detainees to ease pressure on the country’s prisons.
On Thursday, Prime Minister Hassan Diab told journalists that 3,000 detainees could potentially be released under a mechanism being developed by the Justice Ministry.
Lebanon currently has 508 confirmed cases of the virus, including 17 deaths. According to the Internal Security Forces (ISF), which is responsible for prisons, no cases have been reported among detainees.
“If, god forbid, the virus entered prisons, it would be a mass execution” Mohammad Sablouh, a human rights lawyer, told Al Arabiya English.
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A “special amnesty” proposed by the justice minister would gradually release convicted prisoners who have less than six months on their sentence, while an urgent draft law approved by Cabinet would pardon prisoners who have served their sentences but remain in prison for failing to pay fines.
Even if a general amnesty were the best solution to prison overcrowding, which is debated, the two draft laws cannot be ratified as Parliament is currently not meeting, as a precautionary measure against coronavirus.
Hundreds more pre-trial detainees could be released in the coming weeks with the arrival of electronic anklets, requested from France by State Prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat, which would allow the authorities to keep track of inmates while they await a court date.
According to an anonymous judicial source, around 350 pre-trial detainees have already been released thanks to efforts by individual judges to expedite interrogation processes.
As coronavirus continues to spread, there is fear it is only a matter of time before the virus touches the prisons, and inside those walls, detainees have little options for keeping their distance from one another – one of the recommended ways of preventing the spread of coronavirus.
Widespread overcrowding mean inmates “are sleeping on top of each other, sometimes even head to toe in the corridors,” he added.
Lebanon’s 25 prisons and more than 200 detention centers have the capacity to hold around 2,500 inmates at any one time. Currently, they hold more than 9,000 people.
“In Lebanese places of detention, social distancing is impossible,” said Suzanne Jabbour, the CEO of the Restart Center for Victims of Violence & Torture, meaning COVID-19 could spread through the prison population at an alarming rate.
Overcrowding in Lebanese prisons
One of the main sources of overcrowding is the huge proportion of detainees who are being held as they await trial. According to statistics gathered by ALEF, a human rights NGO, around 70 percent of current inmates are in pre-trial detention, often in police stations or courthouses.
Under Lebanese law, detainees are meant to be held for a maximum of two months pre-trial for minor crimes, and up to six months for felonies. Often, detainees end up waiting much longer.
“This puts a huge amount of pressure on the criminal justice system,” said Georges Ghali, a member of ALEF’s board of directors.
Overcrowding puts prisoners at risk
Prisons running far above capacity, combined with “almost non-existent health facilities,” innutritious food and inadequate sanitation, means they are an extremely high-risk environment for COVID-19, Ghali explained.
A number of measures have already been taken by the ISF to reduce the risk, including sterilization of prisons, limiting visitors to one at a time and limiting contact between staff and prisoners.
Nevertheless, prisoners themselves are terrified.
“They hear what’s going on in the outside world and they’re afraid,” Sablouh said. “This psychological stress could be even worse than the illness itself.”
Mounting anxiety has led inmates to stage a series of riots and protests in Lebanon’s biggest prisons in Roumieh and Zahle over the last few weeks, calling for the introduction of a general amnesty to ease pressure on overcrowded facilities.
In some cases they have gone on hunger strike or sewn their mouths shut in protest.
Numerous versions of a draft general amnesty law have been tabled over the last few months, most recently by Member of Parliament Bahia Hariri, the aunt of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, in March.
However, critics are skeptical of mainstream political parties advocating for a general amnesty.
“It is really just fueling patron-client relationships under the mask of legitimate concerns of people in detention,” Ghali said.
Releasing potentially thousands of prisoners at one time would also be detrimental to the development of a fair judicial system, said Wadih al-Asmar, the president of the Lebanese Center for Human Rights.
General amnesty doesn’t fix systemic problems
“A general amnesty is really not a good idea for justice and society,” he said, adding that it fails to address the root causes of overcrowding in prisons.
What is needed instead, Asmar continued, is a “real political decision” to implement wide-scale prison reform that would prevent prisons from filling up due to an inefficient judiciary.
“If the courts worked properly no one would be asking for a general amnesty,” Sablouh said.
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In addition, Ghali argued that a general amnesty could pave the way for impunity for the judiciary or the ISF and could also fail to hold those responsible for rights violations accountable, such as those who extract confessions using unorthodox means.
With Parliament meetings postponed for now, the government and judiciary are working on more rapid solutions to minimize the risk of an outbreak in detention centers as quickly as possible.
While such urgent measures are essential, Ghali sees the public health crisis as a unique opportunity to rethink Lebanon’s criminal justice system and overhaul detention centers.
“This is an alarm bell for the authorities to actually address … services systems in prisons.”