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Starving prisons

Lebanese prisoners share the same cell in Roumieh prison, northeast of Beirut, 07 April 2006. The detention centre, one of the biggest in the Middle East, holds 4,500 inmates but has a capacity of only 1,500. Lebanese writer Omar Nashabeh wrote a book about Roumieh prison, which took four years to be published, and is an attempt to reveal the inmate culture, their relations with guards and with colleagues. AFP PHOTO/RAMZI HAIDAR (Photo by RAMZI HAIDAR / AFP)

On judicial paralysis, chronic overcrowding and rising risk of starvation. How the harsh reality behind the walls of Lebanon’s prisons is deeply affected by the country’s economic collapse

The first time he smoked Cedars, Ahmad was in jail, in an overcrowded cell in the prison of Tripoli. Four days of sentence in 2021 “for the sole reason of being Syrian,” he says, and not having his documents in order. On the third day, unable to sleep, he laid down on the dirty floor of the common bathrooms, and finally enjoyed some space for himself, for his skinny body. “With muscles not relaxed for seventy-two hours, it was impossible to sleep in the cell.” Twenty people in a room of a few square meters, crouching or standing, without air or light except for the small, single barred window on the door, through which the guards passed the goods provided by the detainees’ family members.

But he had no family, at least not here. No one to get him the cigarettes he used to smoke. “It happened that a single sandwich was passed through the window, received from the care of a mother, a wife, a brother or whoever. And then, without knowing who it had been brought for, one by one we passed it to each other, a bite for each. It’s the unwritten law of the cell, along with not asking, ever, any questions.”

Since that day, a bite of a moldy bread crust, a puff of a cigarette offered by his companion – shared among all the inmates – Ahmad began to smoke Cedars, to fear the authorities, to avoid the street of Qoubbeh, Tariq Al Jesh, where the Tripoli prison – the largest correctional facility in northern Lebanon – should accommodate a maximum of 264 inmates, but crams at least the triple, with nearly 700 men in pre-trial condition, rights organizations’ reports showed.

The physical infrastructure of the Lebanese prison system has, for decades, proven gravely insufficient and unsatisfactory. Of the country’s 29 official places of detention, only two – Roumieh and Zahle prisons – were expressly designed to serve as penal facilities, a needs assessment published in 2022 by Italian NGO ARCS revealed. The remaining sites, which were originally intended and previously utilized as police stations and warehouses, are located in the basement of military barracks; inside office spaces and centers of various branches of the security forces; and in dilapidated serails dating back to the Ottoman era. In practical terms, this means that the vast majority of prison cells are presently devoid of proper ventilation and daylight, much less heating and air conditioning.  

Furthermore, amid an economic crisis that has aggravated the already poor conditions inside Lebanon’s prisons, where overcrowding and lack of medical care regularly cause protests and riots by inmates, the harsh reality faced by prisoners has become particularly acute in recent years. According to a report published by Amnesty International in 2023, Lebanese prisons are 323% over capacity, and around 80% of detainees are held pre-trial: numbers confirmed by Human Rights Watch, according to whose data – provided by the country’s Internal Security Forces – detention centers across Lebanon have a total capacity of 4,760, but hold about 8,502 people, only 1,094 of whom, as of August 2023, had been sentenced. Lebanese authorities have also failed to carry out previously approved government plans to relieve overcrowding: in 2015, in fact, the Lebanese government agreed to allocate 30 million US dollars to build a new prison in the town of Mejdlaya, in northern Lebanon, with then Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk stating that the construction project would be completed in 18 months. Nine years later, the prison has not been built yet.

The combination of overcrowding and dire detention conditions in the country has furtherly led to the alarming deterioration in the health of the prison population, where the risk of starvation is rapidly increasing. Meanwhile, in light of depreciating currency and skyrocketing inflation, resources for the provision of healthcare and foodstuffs have drastically decreased. In fact, Lebanese prisons’ food crisis is directly linked to the accelerating collapse within the state and its affected economy. The government has become unable to settle the dues of suppliers and contractors, who provide the security forces with foodstuffs to arrange for prisons.


A timeline of threat

Last December, six companies supplying food to Lebanese prisons threatened to cut deliveries by the end of the year due to the government’s unpaid bills from the last three years, a statement released by the state-run National News Agency reported. 

The food suppliers – namely Dirani Group, Abdullah Group, Marcel Zakhia al-Duwaihy, Antoine Badawi Iskandar, Bernard al-Hayek Trading and Contracting and Hunida Elias Iskander – providing food for the Roumieh, Zahle, and Tripoli prisons, as well as the Baabda women’s prison, said they would have stopped “supplying food to several Lebanese prisons by December 31, 2023, as the contractual period with the Lebanese authorities has ended without a new tender and without the allocation of funds necessary for us to continue our work,” reads a letter sent to the General Directorate of the Internal Security Forces, denouncing overdue payments since 2020. The companies had already issued another ultimatum in March, sending a similar letter to caretaker Minister of Interior Bassam Mawlawi, and later in August, warning that they would have halted providing foodstuffs to prisons if seven months of outstanding payments were not settled by September 1. Funds were eventually allocated to pay part of the amounts due. But more than two years earlier, in March 2021, Lebanon’s General Prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat had already ordered a probe following press reports of a starvation risk in the country’s prisons.

At the same time, as the prisons’ overcrowding and the consequent demand for food provided has increased – due to a general rise in crime rates, slow trial proceedings, chronic judiciary paralysis, and the inability of many prisoners who have served their sentences to pay fees required for their release – rising food prices and the devaluation of the Lebanese currency has made it more difficult to pay contract food suppliers, the Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces (ISF) confirmed to Human Rights Watch, as cited in a report the organisation released in August. To respond, since then, the ISF, working with the Finance and Interior Ministries, has arranged patchwork solutions that have ensured monthly food payments until the end of the year.

However, families of the detainees told Human Rights Watch that, even with food deliveries ensured, the food has remained insufficient and of such poor quality that it is often unfit for consumption.


At risk of starvation

Serious deterioration in access to food for detainees had been flagged by reports from rights organisations since 2019, as – in those prisons where authorities allow the detainees’ families to bring provisions from outside – these latter no longer have the means to buy food for their relatives due to the worsened economic crisis. Inmates started to become more reliant on prison food after the authorities suspended family visits during the Covid-19 pandemic: however, though family visits have now resumed, rising inflation and sky-rocketing food and fuel prices have created insurmountable barriers for many families who would otherwise support their detained relatives. Therefore, statal food distribution – despite providing a lower quality of food and usually insufficient quantities – has become the main provider that detainees are relying on.

Tripoli’s Qoubbeh prison, for example, is one of those where the authorities allow prisoners to receive food prepared by their families. Prison regulations generally provide that pre-trial prisoners are free to receive meals from outside, provided that they respect the prison regulations and the meal times set by the prison governor. Different, instead, is the case of Roumieh prison, where, for security reasons aimed at preventing drug entry, external food cannot be brought in – a further burden added to the fact that rising prices at the prison’s Hannout store have made it difficult for inmates to purchase food, Lebanese newspaper L’Orient-Le Jour reported early in 2021.

“Before the economic crisis that Lebanon is going through, prisoners ate from food that their families bought for them from the prison cafeteria, or cooked their own food. Back then, a very small number of prisoners, whose families did not ask about, ate from prison food, and their number did not exceed 25 to 30% of the very poor prisons’ population,” said Mohamad Sablouh, human rights defender, lawyer and the Director of the Prisoners’ Rights Center at the Tripoli Bar Association, interviewed for NOW. “When the crisis occurred and rapidly worsened – reaching the point we are today – more than 90% of the prisoners ended up eating state-provided food,” he added, highlighting how the government’s ability to provide sufficient quantities of food drastically declined, to the point that more than once detainees “raised the cry of hunger to demand their right to eat.” 

Sablouh has been working on documenting cases and assisting victims of torture, those arbitrarily detained, and Syrian refugees facing deportation – facing alleged threats and intimidation in relation to his work. Among other things, he filed several cases at the domestic level under the Anti-Torture Law No. 65 of 2017, while, at the international level, he regularly provides international NGOs with documented information, with the aim to file cases with the UN Special Procedures. 

Theoretically, under international norms, the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners – also known as the Nelson Mandela Rules – “every prisoner shall be provided by the prison administration at the usual hours with food of nutritional value adequate for health and strength, of wholesome quality and well prepared and served.” The Rules further state that “drinking water shall be available to every prisoner whenever he or she needs it.” Prisoners should also “have access to necessary health-care services free of charge without discrimination on the grounds of their legal status” and state authorities should “endeavour to reduce prison overcrowding and, where appropriate, resort to non-custodial measures as alternatives to pretrial detention.” In the harsh reality of Lebanese prisons, however, these norms – despite being considered the minimum standard for the respect of human dignity – are systematically disregarded. 

“Unfortunately, the security services in Lebanon violate Lebanese law and international agreements, such as the Convention against Torture, which Lebanon signed in 2000,” denounced Mohamad Sablouh. For example, as he explained, due to the massive overcrowding in prisons and the consequent lack of separation between crimes, you may find someone accused of a minor crime being placed with drug dealers or other major crimes. “Roumieh Prison, for example, should accommodate about one thousand and fifty prisoners. It currently contains three-thousand seven hundred prisoners sleeping on top of each other.” Clean drinking water is not available to inmates, and this is getting worse as they do not have sufficient funds to purchase clean bottled water – not to mention that prisons also suffer from acute shortage of fresh drinking water, or water used for bathing and washing clothes. Medical services are also inadequate, and prisoners suffer from lack of sleeping, eating, leisure areas and meeting places. Because of the prison administration’s inability to treat patients and provide hospitalisation, tragically, in one year more than 23 people died: some due to the inability to secure treatment expenses, some due to the state’s medical negligence. “In large prisons like Roumieh, there is no hospital for emergency cases, nor special equipment for emergencies. Many have died from a heart attack due to the prison administration’s inability to transfer the patients to the closest hospital, as routine procedures usually take a long time.” Furthermore, as of February 2024, doctors and nurses are currently on strike due to low salaries. 

Regarding food, then, the issue has been startling long before the economic crisis began. Prisoners have been complaining for years about the quality of food provided by the administration, some claiming that meals contained dirt and insects. Moreover, the food has been served without trays, plates, and the appropriate containers. The Lebanese state’s approximate solutions to the ongoing threat of companies supplying food to cut deliveries, renewed in January 2024, and the exorbitant price charged by prisons’ canteens –  sometimes twice or three times their market value -, clearly indicates that the problem is far to be solved radically, but rather partially, and without having a vision of real solutions. According to the human rights defender, in conclusion, “there is a real danger of famine in prisons in the imminent future.”


The case of Fakhr al-Din barracks

In Lebanon – amidst what Mohamad Sablouh defined as a culture of violence and intimidation – when an alleged criminal is transferred to prison to serve his sentence, he is treated harshly and deprived of his most basic rights, including food; and if he takes a stand to peacefully demonstrate his opposition, he is exposed to violence, beatings, and torture. The case of the Fakhr al-Din barracks, occurred in August 2021 and reported by local NGOs, including Legal Agenda, is more evidence of Sablouh’s claims.

On August 15, 2021, the lawyer filed a case of ill-treatment under the Anti-Torture law after one of his clients was severely beaten the day before by military police officers in the Fakhr al-Din military barracks in Beirut, where he was detained. In that period, due to the worsened economic crisis, the army was unable to secure food for both its members and prisoners in sufficient quantities: therefore, it started progressively reducing the meals, forcing security personnel to furtherly share the already-scarce food provided. “They told the prisoners that their turn [to eat] would have been postponed to the following day because the food was scarce, and this triggered a reaction. Prisoners carried their spoons and banged them on the walls and doors as an expression of their refusal to prevent food from reaching them and not allowing their family to bring food in.”

August 15 marked a prominent strike in the barracks of Fakhr al-Din, with detainees throwing their spoons against the walls of their cells in sign of protest, banging on the iron bars with the cutlery. As a reaction to the protest, the guards stormed into the cells and physically assaulted detainees, using sticks and weapons, including rifle butts, which led to some prisoners being injured in their heads and necks, bruised and tortured. Sablouh, which at the time was defending the case of one of the detainees, Rabih Al-Dhahibi, immediately filed a report with the Cassation Public Prosecutor, Ghassan Oueidat, concerning the incident – both as the lawyer of Rabih and in his capacity as director of the Prisoner’s Rights Center at the Tripoli Bar Association. Oueidat then referred the complaint to the government Commissioner at the Military Court, Judge Fadi Akiki.

“I visited the prisoners after submitting the complaint,” Sablouh said, “and I saw the traces of beating and torture with my own eyes, I saw traces of blood on the hands and backs of the prisoners, including my client Rabih.” According to Law 65/2017, criminalising torture, the judiciary is requested to taked rapid measures to protect the detainee and guarantee his rights – the most important of which is appointing an independent forensic doctor within a maximum of 48 hours to examine the victim and either confirm or deny the occurrence of torture, conducting transparent investigations into the allegations, protecting the prisoner and transferring him to another prison than the one where he was exposed to violence. Unfortunately, though, Sablouh’s client was reportedly only examined on September 22, 2021, over a month after the alleged ill-treatment took place. Having ensured that the traces of beating and torture had disappeared, Judge Akiki appointed a forensic doctor to examine Sablouh’s client only. Without the presence of anyone else, he summoned Rabih to come to his office and interrogated him without his lawyer, pushing him to say that Muhammad Sablouh was a liar and to deny that he was beaten, while promising to release him as a reward.

“My client, Rabih, refused and informed me of the matter,” Sablouh said. “Two days later, I was surprised by the accusation of the government commissioner at the military court, Judge Fadi Akiki, charging me with insulting the military institution. He asked the Tripoli Bar Association for permission to prosecute me, but the union rejected the request and responded to the government commissioner at the military court that I practise my profession within Lebanese law and agreements.”

Despite statements of solidarity with the human rights lawyer coming from Bar associations all over the world – from London to Washington, Geneva, the European Union, as well as from the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, Mary Lawlor – the episode of Fakhr al-Din rises alarming concerns over the fate of detainees in Lebanese prisons – where they languish for months without trial; and re-sheds light on the issue of torture that was raised by the Bar Associations and human rights bodies during the recent period. It also opens the door to talk about the impact of the economic and financial crisis and the fuel crisis on the type of services inside Lebanese prisons, detention centres and prisons, in addition to the long period of detention without trial.


The eye of Haitham Moussawi

In black and white, without title – yet densely charged with life stories, Haitham Moussawi’s photographs describe Lebanese prisons with the neutral eye of the visitor, not a guard, not a prisoner, but an external observer. Moussawi is the only person who was granted the privilege of regular entry-and-exit access for more than a year, without the guidance of an authority to convey his search. “Sometimes I was attacked, sometimes welcomed, sometimes harassed, or perceived as an instrument to obtain grace or pity.” Between 2009 and 2011, there were 23 prisons in Lebanon: and Haitham Moussawi was the only photographer to visit them all: male, female and juvenile. “Without, however, my arrival being announced to the inmates,” Haitham said, understanding the reasons for the aggressions he received, and sharing the stories hidden behind the reality he documented without tones of commiseration or emotional upheaval. “After witnessing the Syrian war, I can consider myself emotionally well grounded.” And the photographs, after all, speak for themselves. With more than twenty years of experience as a photojournalist, Haitham Moussawi has covered several war zones in the Middle East. He dreams, one day, of being able to access the hidden prisons of Syria and Saudi Arabia.

It was not easy to access Lebanese prisons: and despite his profession, Moussawi didn’t enter them in the role of journalist. At that time, more than ten years ago, the Minister of Interior was planning the construction of a new central prison for the country, with appropriate security measures and regulations, involving an advisor to further research on human and civil rights in Lebanon’s penitentiary institutions. Haitham’s eye, its lenses and objectives, represented a further step in this broader study. He was therefore granted a long-term permit by the Lebanese government, under which he was able to visit each of the country’s prisons for more than a year, completing the project in 2011. Every time a journalist wants to make a report or a news topic about prisons, as he observed, the authorities work on making it almost impossible to get inside. Even more so, Haitham’s monumental work – from whose hundreds of photographs he selected only a few dozen for publication – is precious, and exceptionally rare. The steps of the photographer, free to move at his discretion between one cell and another, alone and without any control from the authorities: this is why the photographed moments appear so real. This is why many shots were excluded: and others were not even captured. 

For instance, he did not capture women’s faces, often hidden for reasons of modesty or honor, so as not to be recognized outside the cell – the reason Haitham visited most female prisons in the early hours of the morning, when most inmates were asleep; nor prisoners on the phone, or intent on carrying out illegal activities, which Haitham-the-visitor noticed – but Haitham-the-photographer ignored, in order to avoid compromising the prisoner’s release, and putting his already undermined safety at risk; nor the smells: those that the camera cannot immortalize, or the colors, almost completely absent, as Haitham explains in justifying the choice of black and white, describing the long corridor of the Adliyeh underground prison, that since the time of his work has been reserved for foreigners without documents in rule, men and women together; as well as that of Baalbek, built on the site of an old Ottoman serail, with no light sources except for a single hole, and where if there is no electricity it is pitch black even during the daily hours.

Often, it was fear that prevented him from pressing the shutter button: fear of a prisoner being recognized after release, albeit he always made sure to get the prisoners’ permission before taking any photograph. He showed me a photograph of the bare, tattooed chest of a man, whose age is impossible to guess, in Rashaya prison. There is no face, but Haitham remembers that the photographed body belonged to the boss of the prison, who, despite the government permission granted, did not want to allow the photographer access to the cells. “Then, with jokes and conversation, I got his permission and entered.” From the prison of Roumieh, instead, two other men he had photographed, once, years later, stopped him in the car to ask him for directions, without recognizing him.

Of those shown, however, one face stands out above all. The picture’s subject will hardly recognize Haitham, thirteen years from the moment of their meeting – the same time of his age. It is that of a newborn baby in Zahle, crying, in the arms of a woman who is probably his mother. “Born in prison, the child must have stayed with his mother for at least three years: so he grew up in prison, like a doll, among the other cellmates who helped, how they could, the new mother.”

Beyond any imaginative effort, Haitham Moussawi’s photographs do not simply attest to a series of degrading conditions – the shortage of beds, the inadequacy of meals, the lack of appropriate medical care, of psychological support, of infrastructures for physical activity, or educational facilities. By breaking down prejudices, they testify to the truth of daily life beyond a wall, the widespread solidarity in the aftermath of a birth – the sharing of a meal, or a pack of cigarettes, for those who have no family. Denouncing the injustice of administrative detention and the inhumanity of overcrowding and darkness, they restore the beauty of two-tone, black and white surprisingly being more realistic than color, they speak of a life beyond, expressing the gap of a chromatic scale, the impact to cross a border towards an underground, parallel world in which – to punish the evasion of some laws – other laws, those of respect for the dignity of the person, are evaded. But, and more seriously, by the authorities themselves.