Lebanon’s prison system is plagued by a number of problems and conditions that place it in direct violation of human rights norms and the basic requirements for prisons established by the United Nations. Aside from substandard living conditions and overcrowding, a significant percentage of those incarcerated in Lebanese jails are held without trial. In the latter half of 2011, however, a movement was initiated to raise public awareness about the inhumane conditions and pressure the government to implement real and meaningful reforms in the judicial and prison systems. Of note, that initiative accelerated substantially after several high-profile incidents—inmate riots, family demonstrations outside the prisons and the self-immolation of a prisoner—occurred in Lebanon’s infamous Roumieh prison, considered to be among the premier facilities in the country. In September, Interior Minister Marwan Charbel announced the release of a report on prison conditions that recommended improvements in water, sanitation and electricity, the separation of “special security status” inmates from the general population and prison management training for facility guards.
In late November, relatives of prisoners leveled several demands for improvements including the establishment of a general amnesty, a change in the prison-year from 12 to 9 months (effectively reducing sentence duration) and that actions be taken to accelerate the speed with which trials are conducted. Thus far, the government has failed to move forward on any of these issues.
UMAM D&R and Hayya Bina believe the unification of civic elements represents a crucial first step toward tackling the problems that continue to plague Lebanon’s prison and judicial systems and improving respect for human rights nationwide. The two organizations demonstrated their commitment to human rights and democratic reforms in Lebanon yet again when they hosted a follow-up meeting in The Hangar, UMAM D&R’s multifunction, multiplatform facility in Haret Hriek, to enhance the affiliation sparked by previous efforts to address prison issues. The attendees included prominent human rights activists and organizations, relatives of detainees and representatives of Islamist prisoners. The group released a statement published the day after, December 14, in several Beirut newspapers. In it, they confirmed their “support for the prisoners engaged in peaceful hunger strikes and refusal to overlook further violations against prisoners and security conditions.” They also promised to “open communications with prominent political and spiritual leaders, parliamentary blocs and relevant committees” on the matter.
Two days after the meeting, on December 15, the Daily Star reported that Raymond Aziz Msallam, a participant in the Roumieh hunger strike, died at Al-Hayat Hospital. Unfortunately, just hours before his death, Change and Reform MP Gassan Moukheiber told reporters, “We cannot promise that solutions will be reached in a day, in two days, or even in a month or two months.” He added that the prisoner’s hunger strike was “futile.” Clearly, incidents like these underscore the necessity for a unified initiative on this important matter.