BEIRUT: Irate families of convicts and detainees in the country’s prisons hurled stones and rocks at Beirut’s Justice Palace Thursday as a woman attempted to set herself on fire to demand the release of all prisoners.
The long day of protests also saw prisoners at Roumieh hold two members of the Internal Security Forces and three workers hostage for several hours after the start of rehabilitation works at the prison, the center of days of prisoner uprisings and protests by families. The ISF, in cooperation with Lebanese Army special forces, freed the captured ISF personnel and the workers after several hours.
Meanwhile, protesters blocked the highway leading to Rafik Hariri International Airport in the evening, as police finally re-opened the road that had been blocked by burning tires.
Similar protests took place in Baalbek in the east of the country.
Relatives of prisoners from across the country gathered in front of the Justice Palace to demand action on easing conditions at Roumieh, with the rumor mill stirring up emotions.
According to a security source, inmates were in contact with their family members through landline telephones within the prison.
Three days of riots within the Roumieh complex resulted in the death of two inmates during an overnight raid by security forces. Prisoner Roy Azar, 40, was killed after a stun grenade exploded in his hands, as another inmate, Jamil Abu Anni, 28, was reported dead in his cell reportedly having suffered a cardiac arrest.
The ongoing contact between prisoners and family members has led to the spreading of rumors, as the “news” circulates that an inmate has died, which in turn leads to angry gatherings and violent protests.
For his part, President Michel Sleiman said it was important to transfer authority for prisons to the Justice Ministry.
“It is vital to put the case of prisons under one jurisdiction [Justice Ministry] …while arranging the right steps to address the humanitarian needs by having prisons that are in line with humanitarian standards,” said Sleiman following his meeting with caretaker Justice Minister Ibrahim Najjar, ISF Commander General Ashraf Rifi and the commander of the Gendarmerie, Gen. Salah Jebran.
Sleiman also said the prison issue would be a priority of the next Cabinet.
Despite mediation efforts between security forces and the members of inmates’ family, protests turned violent Thursday as many hurled rocks at the Justice Palace – which houses several courtrooms as well as offices for both judges for both lawyers in Beirut – damaging several judicial offices.
While ISF personnel and riot police guarded the Justice Palace entrance, family members fought hard to get inside to meet Justice Ministry officials. The protesters then formed a 10-member committee, headed by human rights activist Ali Akil Khalil, and held a meeting with Omar Natour, the ministry’s director general. Following the meeting, Natour promised the protesters that he would convey their demands to Najjar. They are demanding an investigative committee made of family members and reporters to monitor the situation inside Roumieh be formed.
The stand-off saw Fatima Allaw attempt to set herself on fire, but she was quickly stopped by security personnel present in the area. Allaw, the mother of a Roumieh inmate, blamed the judiciary for rampant bribery and graft, and pledged that family members would fight until their children were released from the prisons. Shortly afterward, Allaw fainted as she tried to break the security cordon to approach the Justice Palace. She was transferred to Rafik Hariri Hospital after the incident.
“Why doesn’t the government do anything about granting amnesty to the prisoners?” asked a woman who refused to give out her name to the media. “Are amnesties special to Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea?”
Another woman who identified herself as Najah blamed Speaker Nabih Berri for abandoning the families of prisoners. “Berri has abandoned us today … he only remembers us during the elections,” said Najah.
“Why were the four generals [detained in the assassination case of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri] released from their prison cells? Were they innocent and the rest of the prisoners criminals?” Najah asked, as the women around her criticized the speaker for not sending his representatives to participate in the protests.
A man in his 60s described what he said was a degrading process of trying to visit family members in Roumieh. “In that prison, there is no dignity or honor for anyone … the state does not follow up on the issue, or ask about anyone,” he added.
Prison visits by family members have been suspended since last week by the ISF Directorate General because of damages caused during the riots. The ISF said Thursday the decision to suspend the regular visits would be extended to Monday. “The extent of the damages done to the areas where family members can meet inmates are enormous and require further rehabilitation,” said an ISF statement.
The Interior Ministry and the ISF also announced a series of steps to help restore order at the prison, such as boosting the facility’s food and beverage and medical services. –