BEIRUT: Prisoners in Lebanon have been overstaying their sentences, not because prisons are pleasant to be in, but due to many gaps that the Bar Association hopes to address. In an unprecedented event for Lebanon, last Sunday 750 lawyers visited 25 prisons as part of an initiative spearheaded by the newly elected head of the Beirut Bar Association Melhem Khalaf and the association’s council.
The visit sought to inspect the prisoners’ legal situations, informing them of their rights as prisoners as well as getting a better idea of their needs and conditions in the prison.
The lawyers spoke with prisoners and filled out reports with their statements including what the lawyers witnessed regarding the prisons’ conditions.
The data gathered by the lawyers during their visit will be organized and assessed to set up what the initiative’s next steps will be.
There are currently around 7,300 prisoners and lawyers met with all of them Sunday.
The initiative was also carried out in cooperation with the Tripoli Bar Association, where their lawyers also visited prisons.
PRISONERS’ LEGAL RIGHTS
One of the initiative’s main goals was to make sure that prisoners have lawyer following up on their case, Elie Bazerli, a member of the Beirut Bar Association’s council, told The Daily Star.
“We are trying to see if we can intervene and appoint lawyers on behalf of these prisoners,” Bazerli, who has been involved in the initiative since the start, said.
“There are people who served their time, but do not have anyone following up on the judicial proceedings for their release.”
“No prisoner in Lebanon will be left without a lawyer,” Khalaf said Friday during a meeting with caretaker Interior Minister Raya El Hassan. Hassan handed Khalaf two reports on the conditions of prisons in Lebanon and on the ministry’s roadmap of transforming prisons to a facility of rehabilitation.
In addition to not having lawyers representing them, many prisoners have been forced to stay in prison even after serving their sentences due to financial reasons.
Several are due to pay fines, but don’t have the money to settle them.
Bazerli said that some prisoners’ freedom has been contingent on paying fines as low as LL20,000 ($13).
During their visit, lawyers recorded information about prisoners in need of such assistance. Bazerli said the lawyers would gather and donate funds so they could help them pay their dues to be released.
Since the visit, at least two prisoners have been released after their fines were paid, Bazerli said.
He noted that they are also planning on paying the fines of those who are set to be released in a few months, so they won’t be held any longer.
Bazerli said that some prisoners may have lawyers, but noted that courts had too many cases, which might affect the legal process.
In 2015, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution called the Nelson Mandela rules, which is regarded by countries as the most important source of standards on treatment of prisoners and prisons’ conditions.
However, Lebanon, a U.N. member state, still has a long way to go in that regard.
“There is no doubt that the state of prisons is miserable,” Bazerli said.
He said prisons were not well-equipped with even the basic needs of prisoners and that some prisoners are sleeping on the floor.
“I’m not even talking about beds because some don’t even have mattresses,” Bazerli said.
He added that some do not provide adequate medical care, do not have well-stocked pharmacies and have poor hygienic conditions.
“Most prisons in Lebanon need to be refurbished. Prison cells are very overcrowded and a cell that can hold up to 10 people is filled with 30.”
Overcrowding is a common issue in Lebanon’s prisons. This was noted by several lawyers during their visit, including Mohammad Ammar.
Ammar a lawyer who visited notorious Roumieh prison’s Block B said that the building can hold around 300 prisoners, but currently holds around 700. Roumieh’s Block B holds Islamist inmates that have been accused in terror cases.
“There was someone who had been charged with theft but was put in the same place as terrorists, in building B for sectarian reasons,” Ammar noted.
He also noted that Block B was not reasonably hygienic and that the pharmacy was not well-stocked.
“The prisoners claim doctors prescribe them Panadol [an over the counter pain medication] most of the time,” he said.
Ammar also noted that some inmates claimed they had not seen their families at all since their incarceration began.
This issue was also noted by Dina Abou Zour, a lawyer who visited a men’s prison in Zahle.
“Prisoners aren’t distributed according to the area they are from, but according to the area they were charged at,” Abou Zour said. “This makes it harder for their families to visit them,” she added.
Abou Zour also said that there is no face to face visitation and that there is always a divider between the prisoner and the visitor.
“Prisoners are denied human touch,” she said.
Overcrowding and pricey food also proved to be challenging for inmates, Abou Zour added.
“What I saw was unacceptable,” Bazerli said. He noted there should also be a focus should be on reintegrating prisoners into the society.
“If the prisoner is living a life that is not suitable for a human being during his imprisonment, then he is more likely to commit crimes again when he is released.”