Roumieh situation gets worse as more join hunger strike

BEIRUT: More than 2,000 inmates in Roumieh prison have joined a hunger strike and several prisoners have been hospitalized, said senior human rights activist, Ali Akil Khalil Tuesday.

Hours after Parliament’s Justice and Administration and Human Rights Committees convened at Nijmeh Square to discuss the situation in the prison, inmates reiterated their demands for general amnesty.
“We will sacrifice our lives so that the remaining oppressed prisoners will be set free,” prisoner Ibrahim Salim told The Daily Star by phone Tuesday. Salim, who joined the strike since last week, said that the situation in Roumieh prison was intensifying, but vowed to keep the protest action peaceful.

“The situation in the prison is tense now, but it is our right to be on hunger strike, in order to pressure the authorities to act,” Salim added.

In early April, dozens of inmates at the country’s biggest prison revolted against guards and set several blocks of the prison on fire. Four inmates died as a result of three days of riots in April and more than 60 were reportedly injured, among them members of the Internal Security Forces.

Caretaker Interior Minister Ziyad Baroud called the hunger strike by the prisoners “a peaceful and a civilized action.”

“It is important to note that this peaceful and civilized action by the prisoners should yield quick and forceful results,” said Baroud following the meetings at Parliament.

Meanwhile, security officials played down the reports of a mass hunger strike.

In a telephone call Tuesday, the head of the Gendarmerie, Brig. Gen. Salah Jebran, said that the new policies adopted by the ISF and the prison administration had improved the situation in the prison.

“We have reduced the number of inmates from 3,700 to 3,140 and have replaced the former prison doctor with 10 new doctors,” said Jebran.

Asked if the inmates’ demand for a general amnesty would renew the tumult inside the prison, Jebran said that the situation was under control, while calling the demands unrealistic.

According to Jebran, the discussion of such an amnesty would require a legislative session which, in the current political vacuum, cannot take place.

“They know it’s impossible to grant general amnesty, and yet they’re asking for this,” Jebran added.

While activists agree that conditions at Roumieh fall far below international standards, politicians have questioned the timing of the recent riots and current hunger strike, accusing political parties of being behind the actions. The inmates, however, insist that action must be taken.

“It’s enough,” said Salim 23, who has been in the prison for two years without facing trial.

“We don’t care if there is no government … we will continue our hunger strike until the authorities act,” the 23-year-old inmate added.

The weekend saw talks and mediation between prison administration and inmates, and during a follow-up meeting Monday, Metn MP Ghassan Moukhaiber asked the inmates to postpone their hunger strike until the formation of the new government.

“The prisoners refused to postpone the strike because they were not given guarantees by the officials,” ambassador of the International Human Rights Organization, Ali Akil Khalil, told The Daily Star later Tuesday.

“After the uprising of April in Roumieh prison, inmates have become wary … the authorities have complete disregard for them,” said Khalil, who has spearheaded most of the mediation talks between the two sides.

Khalil said a general amnesty has been one of the major demands since the start of the riots in April.

“During my talks with the Justice and Administration Committee, I disagreed with the [idea of a] conditional amnesty because it is not a just policy, since money and power could play a role,” said Khalil, in reference to the possibility that bribes would be used to ensure inmates’ release.

He argued that a general amnesty for inmates convicted of the crimes of drug trafficking and drug use, but not crimes for collaborating with Israel, would definitely ease the ongoing tension.

While Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati has so far failed to form a new Cabinet, Khalil said that families of the inmates will hold a demonstration in Riad al-Solh Square Wednesday morning.

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