Lebanon and Italy signed an agreement Monday to improve the conditions of the Lebanese prisons, with Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi noting that the number of inmates has increased by one-third with the influx of Syrian refugees into the country. Legal experts and judges gathered at the Justice Ministry to witness the signing of an agreement, funded by the Italian Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Ministry.
“Prison isn’t only a punishment for violating the laws that threaten public well-being, but it is also an opportunity to rehabilitate people so that they can reintegrate into society,” said Massood Karmipoor, the regional head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime in the Middle East and North Africa region.
The initiative will be implemented by the Justice Ministry and the UNODC by October 2016.
With a specific focus on Roumieh prison, Lebanon’s largest penal facility, the project is designed to improve food management and hygiene, introduce services for prisoners suffering from mental illness and provide better care for Syrian children living in detention.
In June, inmates in Roumieh had rioted against the poor management of facilities and services, damaging several cells and injuring fellow prisoners in the process. It was the not the first revolt of its kind, as a bigger riot took place in April 2011.
According to a national report presented to the UN conference for sustainable development, prisons in Lebanon operate at nearly double their official capacity. The most serious consequences of overcrowding include inadequate access to natural light, terrible sanitation and deplorable sleeping arrangements.
“We are beyond our capacity,” Rifi told reporters Monday. “And with the Syrian refugee crisis, the number of people we [Lebanon] have incarcerated has increased by 30 to 35 percent.”
Rifi said that efforts were being made to implement a five-year plan approved by the government to transfer the administration of prisons from the Interior Ministry to the Justice Ministry.
It’s also common for hundreds of prisoners to stay behind bars for years before they are finally put on trial. And while videos in the past reveal that inmates were abused and tortured by Lebanese guards, judges say that this initiative is a positive reform to the prison system.
“This occasion is a happy one,” said Judge Raja Abi Nader. “Despite the instability in our homeland and on our borders, this initiative allows us to address a major issue. Italy has been kind to supply our ministry with the equipment to carry out reforms and the UNODC has become more than a partner: They have become an essential ally.”
Massimo Marotti, the Italian Ambassador to Lebanon, said that the project didn’t only reflect the importance on strengthening procedures to uphold individual rights, but it also represented the significance of international collaboration.
“My opinion is that this project strengthens the rules and regulations to guarantee the rights of the human being and enforce the rule of law,” he told The Daily Star. “By collaborating with the Justice Ministry, we hope that we can also support Syrian children who are the most vulnerable category of people in detention.”
Hamza Sharafeddine, a chief judge responsible for authorizing the reduction of prison sentences, said that nearly 300 Syrian children were in juvenile detention while over 60 percent of inmates in Roumieh are foreigners.
“I was a former officer and I am the only judge who enters that [Roumieh] prison,” Sharafeddine told The Daily Star, while displaying photos of the building’s interior and poor facilities. “The prison is really terrible: Its sewage system is broken, its walls are moldy and trash is littered on the ground.”
Despite the agreement, lawyers and judges alike agree that there is still much to be done, though many are encouraged by the steps that have been taken so far. “I think it’s a great project and it should be easy to manage,” said Rita Patrilli, a legal expert for Italian International Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation.
“The initiative should also benefit prison guards and social workers,” Marotti added.
In the past, steps were taken to reduce sentences of inmates who demonstrated “good behavior” while also providing financial assistance to those who languished in detention due to outstanding fines. But despite signs of commitment, reforming the prison system to meet international standards remains a steep process.
“The UN was created 70 years ago to achieve security, peace and human rights,” said Karmipoor. It’s up to us [member states] to continue to advance those goals today.”
By Mat Nashed