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April 4, 2011

Lebanonwire

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Baroud warns of time bomb in Lebanon's penal system

BEIRUT - Security forces quelled rioting at the country’s largest prison Sunday but Interior Minister Ziyad Baroud warned of a “time bomb” in Lebanon’s penal system.

No major casualties were reported in an operation involving Lebanese Army and Internal Security Forces to restore order at Roumieh prison, north of Beirut, after inmates set fire to mattresses in protest at the blocking of cellphone signals inside the complex.

Baroud, who visited Roumieh Sunday, said he had warned the government over a year ago about the appalling living conditions in the prison, as well as the risk of regular revolts.

“I said: ‘Be careful. There is a bomb in Roumieh.’ It can explode at any time and it exploded [over the weekend],” Baroud told The Daily Star.

He said that necessary reforms to living conditions in Lebanon’s prisons were being held up by the lack of a functioning government.

“The problem is that the things [inmates] are asking for are not my [responsibility]. This is an issue for the Justice Ministry. As far as I am concerned, I had to put an end to the riot without casualties. If you listen to what they were calling for, they were calling for an amnesty and to have their court hearings more often, which is not my job, it is the responsibility of Parliament,” Baroud said.

Major General Ashraf Rifi, head of Internal Security Forces, visited Roumieh Sunday afternoon after prison staff failed to contain riots in cell blocks B and D overnight. He told reporters that the situation had been contained peacefully and that prisoner demands, including calls for the reduction of sentences and for the right to trial of all inmates to be respected, would be transferred to relevant authorities.

“Things have reached an end. The Lebanese are reassured and the prisoners are reassured that the issue has finally reached a peaceful conclusion in the prison,” Rifi said. “We and the prison’s administration have transferred the prisoners’ demands to the judicial authority.”

Rifi also announced a LL19 billion project to build two additional prisons in Lebanon to help to deal with chronic overcrowding.

A security source told The Daily Star the mounting of special devices enabling prison guards to detect the use of cellphones inside Roumieh sparked the mutiny. One prison guard was taken hostage by rioters late Saturday. He was released Sunday afternoon without harm, according to the source.

By 5.30pm the situation in Roumieh had returned to normal and food was served in an orderly manner to inmates, according to the National News Agency.

The latest Interior Ministry statistics, given to The Daily Star, show that out of Roumieh’s 3,700 inmates, only 721 are serving sentences – the rest are incarcerated awaiting trial.

“What can the ISF do if we have this sort of problem?” Baroud said. “The solution is elsewhere, not within the prison. [The inmates] could be wrong and could be criminals. I don’t know. But at least give them their right to a fair trial.”

Protests broke out in Beirut and the Bekaa Valley town of Brital, as relatives of Roumieh inmates fired machine guns in the air and burned tires along Beirut’s airport road in support of prisoner demands. Security forces managed to contain both incidents, which Baroud attributed to misinformation.

“They thought [security forces] were already inside the prison and that was not true. I don’t consider them as people who are not able to protest or to present their demands. We are ready to listen to them, but we still have some security concerns inside Roumieh,” he said.

Wadih Asmar, secretary-general of the Lebanese Center for Human Rights, said that appalling prison conditions made incidents such as Sunday’s mutiny inevitable.

“The major problem in Roumieh is that people haven’t have been judged yet. Most of them are awaiting trial,” he said. “They are all aware that the situation in prison is really damaging. As human rights activists, we should not wait for another problem of this kind to happen in order to have a plan for prisons in Lebanon.”

Asmar said that Lebanese prisons were up to three times over capacity. He called for the government to make efforts to free the 13 percent of foreign prisoners in Lebanon who have completed their sentences but remain incarcerated.

“Who wants to solve this problem? The Justice Ministry should accelerate efforts to avoid huge delays in judgment and free people who should not be in prison. This should be a right. We don’t think that they are moving as fast as the situation needs,” he said.

Baroud said that the government needed to address Lebanon’s prison problem before further riots occurred.

“The ISF and army were on the ground and I was with them [Sunday],” he said. “The president was supporting our operations but there is no government; there is no one here to listen. This requires action with multiple ministries, money and a plan of action.” - With The Daily Star

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