By Manar Hammoud
The Roumieh prison abuse scandal has provoked a strong response from the Sunni community, given that the majority of prisoners are untried and the prevalent assumption is that the majority are untried Sunnis. The attached Facebook post offers a poignant illustration of Sunni popular sentiment. Sarcastically, the individual laments:
“I have planned on fasting from speaking during the month of Ramadan… but what has happened has ruined the plan and I have decided to
thank God that the issue of torturing prisoners is limited to the terrorist Sunni sect, God saved Lebanon from great strife, Imagine that the prisoners whose skin has been sloughed off from beating were Shia, what would have happened in Dahye? It’s good that they weren’t from the Druze minority, Oh dear the Jabal would’ve been on fire! It’s also good that they weren’t Christian then Lebanon, the world, and nearby planets would have stood against the strategic plan to annihilate the Christian existence in the east!! God has been kind that the jailed terrorists weren’t Armenians! The entire world would have associated the process of torture with Turkish Ardoganie Othamanite collusion that aims at finishing off the series of alleged Armenian extermination. A thousand thanks to God, the story of torture and humiliation is limited to the terrorist Sunni sect that does nothing, and that the terrorists have been beaten, have learned their lesson, they will not do it again ,and they will not terrorize the world not them nor their supporters. See you in another [Khazuq] joke #You are Sunni then you are a terrorist # shared cowering.”
This post presents a particularly cynical viewpoint, however it is emblematic of wider Sunni outrage. The outrage is not simply limited to the fact that there was abuse in prison. It is the latest affirmation of a pervasive feeling of Sunni helplessness and marginalization in Lebanon.
Roumieh Prison Scandal: Perpetuating the Lebanese Islamic State Hatchery
Recently, footage has been leaked displaying torture and beating of inmates in Roumieh prison. Unlike what some would like to think, this is nothing new. In fact, after Ahmad al-Aseer’s debacle in Sidon, many were beaten for supporting him. However, despite the fact that beating and torture are not acceptable under any circumstance al- Aseer’s case is politically more difficult to defend compared to case of the prisoners in Roumieh given the fact that al-Aseer has touched on two very sensitive issues. The first is that al- Aseer and his followers have attacked the army, he and his followers have denied doing so, which many consider to be a symbol of Lebanese unity. The second was asking Sunni members of the Lebanese armed forces to defect, bringing back traumatic memories of the Lebanese civil war. Be that as it may, both the soldiers who have abused the prisoners in Roumieh and the soldiers who witnessed the abuse will be prosecuted soon. Nevertheless, the government needs to implement major reforms.
One of the main reasons behind the importance of policy reform is that this scandal has provoked sectarian sensitivities. Many of the prisoners in Roumieh are believed to belong to the Sunni sect. This has Triggered the ire of many Sunnis, as demonstrated in the Facebook quote above, particularly when Roumieh is a prison not just for convicts but also for prisoners on remand. 66% of prisoners in Lebanon are detained pending trial , in some cases for over three years. In other words, some of the prisoners in Roumieh prison might be innocent and are only there awaiting trials. It is quite ironic when the abusers get a trial within a few days of the scandal, but then again military courts are different.
Aside from moving the prisoners’ cases forward in court, relieving the overcrowded prison, the Lebanese government should consider looking into ways that would prevent future abuse and apply standards that uphold the human rights charter of the UN. Brig. Gen. Imad Othman, head of the Lebanese security forces, claims that the government has faced cases of abuse before and it has dealt with them successfully. The government’s success in dealing with previous occurrences does not mean that if things are left as they are then future human rights violations would not occur. Alternatively, the government should take into consideration the factors that have led to the violations. Not just for protecting people, but more importantly there should not have been any human rights violations in the first place. People’s outrage was not triggered because the videos were published. Instead, it was triggered because there was something to video tape in the first place.
Yet, Ashraf Rifi, the Lebanese justice minister, finds the publication of these videos more problematic than the abuse itself, and has accused Hezbollah of leaking the videos. Rifi claims that “They (Hezbollah) have been launching a campaign for the past three months to shove me into a dispute with Minister Nouhad al-Mashnouq” and that “This campaign aims at targeting the moderate Sunnis, their unity and leadership.” Obviously, Hezbollah has rejected the claim. In fact, they have considered it “shameful” for Rifi to make such a claim given that prisons are his responsibility.
Meanwhile, Nouhad Al- Mashnouq, the Lebanese interior minister, makes a fair point by arguing that an institution that consists of 30, 000 members should not be held responsible for the actions of 5 of its members. Nonetheless, arguing that no one paid attention to the other video where the prisoners were beating the security forces is a terrible defense. Neither the beating of prisoners nor the beating of security forces flatters the image of the Lebanese Security Forces. On one hand, the beating of prisoners indicates that some members of the security forces subject prisoners to inhumane conditions. On the other hand, the beating of security forces shows that the Security forces are not able to secure themselves let alone the entire country.
Moreover, the Islamic State (IS) has threatened to torture its Lebanese captives in response to the events in Roumieh. The IS currently has 9 captives out of the 11 service men who were abducted in August of last year, as two were executed later that year. Politically speaking the threat is not a simple case of avenging prisoners, however, it is aimed at portraying the IS as a Sunni savior and protector, an image that has helped it succeed in its early days. This benefits the IS because it is planning on making Lebanon one of its emirates. Unfortunately, the Lebanese government does not seem to be taking the IS’s threats seriously. Granted the army has been defending the Lebanese borders. Yet, people who join the IS don’t grow out of thin air. They are not just some random psychopaths or pariahs who decide to join the IS because of its blood lust and cruelty. In many cases, they are people disenchanted with the current state of affairs or who feel that their identity is attacked, they are people who have come to the decision that joining the IS is a better alternative. As far as the current state of affairs is concerned there are many factors disenchanting Lebanese youth, including but not limited to: Lebanon’s lack of a president, the government’s failure to provide basic services such as water and electricity, despite economic growth very little of that growth can be experienced by average citizens, and the lack of security. As far as threatened identities are concerned the Roumieh prison scandal is not doing the Lebanese government any favors. In other words, unless the Lebanese government makes some serious changes soon, the current predicament of Lebanese Sunnis is setting Lebanon to become a hatchery for members of the IS.
In conclusion, the Lebanese government needs to make serious refroms. Simply punishing the offenders is not a solution. There shouldn’t have been any violations in the first place. Furthermore, prison reforms should not be limited to preventing future violations but should also include ways to speed up the process of pending trials. While, Rifi and Mashnouq take defensive stances to address this issue as expected, they seem to be missing the cause of the public outrage; opening the doors wide for homegrown IS members.
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