Lebanon Prison ‘Controlled By Islamists’

Jaafar al-Attar writes that Lebanon’s Roumieh prison is being run by Islamist inmates from Fatah al-Islam, terrorizing other inmates and preventing security forces from entering. 

al-monitor General view of Lebanon's Roumieh Central Prison overlooking Beirut. Photo by REUTERS.

Topics covered

violence, security, prisoners, lebanon, lebanese policy, islamists

Jan 30, 2013

A high-ranking officer has told As-Safir that the emir of Fatah al-Islam in Roumieh prison, known as Abu al-Walid, called a security officer a few days ago and said: “Listen, I can transfer you to Roumieh prison to hold the post of Col. Amer Zaila’a. If you agree, we can cooperate in the prison."The officer refused, and informed the Internal Security Forces Information Branch of the details of the call.

Even though the ISF are “resolute in this regard,” they showed their officers that they recognized their efforts and rewarded those who were on duty the day they foiled a large prison break attempt, but the political cover that prisoners belonging to Fatah al-Islam were provided with went beyond all limits. Some prisoners tried to escape, killing a fellow prisoner. Yet,  no one has of yet dared to search the bloc that they live in and to interrogate them.

State Commissioner to the Military Court Judge Saqr Saqr yesterday [Jan.28] insisted that Abu al-Walid and eight others be charged with killing the prisoner Ghassan Kindakli, although they have not yet been questioned on the matter.

While the main judicial dilemma was represented by the fact that the inmates who are members of Fatah al-Islam refused to be investigated outside Roumieh prison, Justice Minister Chakib Kortbawi told As-Safir: “The investigating judge has the right to decide where to conduct the investigation, whether inside or outside the prison”.

Kortbawi noted that “things inside should be controlled as they are outside the prison, and this is the responsibility of the security forces in charge.” Security sources expressed their concern at a second possible escape attempt by Islamist prisoners, saying: “The tools used in the last attempt have not yet been seized, and thus far, we do not understand why we have not been allowed to enter the prison. Are there any official quarters that want us to break Islamists out of prison? What is going on?”

An officer revealed recent security information that “Islamists who are in the third floor have explosives, and were working on using them to blow up the iron cage in the control room, through which they escaped”. He added: “according to our information, these explosives are behind religious books and copies of the Quran that prisoners own and have forbidden us to touch during the last search conducted more than a year ago, under the pretext that these books are sacred and cannot be touched.” 

Through the interviews conducted by As-Safir, it seemed clear yesterday that the officers in charge of the prison had different statements regarding the answers given by officials in the government. Government officials discussed the issue as if the situation in Roumieh was similar to a minor traffic accident. As for the officers, they are afraid for their lives and fear another breakout,  for which they may bear responsibility if it were to succeed. These officers talked based on information, while government officials are seeking to play down the scandal in Roumieh prison as much as possible.

The concerned officers said: “The entry should be made as soon as possible, and we are logistically ready, but we are waiting for an official decision from higher authorities,” and noted: “Islamists in prison are refusing entry, and there may be casualties in the operation; for this reason we are waiting for official approval to go in.”

According to security sources, the officials in charge fear any reactions in Tripoli. Despite that, the officers say: “The situation in the prison is no longer bearable. The buildings of non-Islamists also need to be searched, prisoners are mocking us. They believe that we are only trying to assert our authority over them,however, and do not allow us to conduct a thorough search.”

Sheikh Nabil Rahim, a member of the Islamist detainees families’ committee, told As-Safir: “Islamist prisoners told me that they did not set any conditions for entry or for the place of interrogation, and their request to transfer Zailaa is just a rumor.” The concerned officer explained: “There are documented reports regarding this issue. If they really agree on the entry, what is the state waiting for? To give us commands?”

Sources said: “Rahim is the one who suggested a few days ago to the families of Islamist detainees that they threaten to block the roads in Tripoli, and they are ready to do so at any moment.” However, Rahim denied that by saying: “Rumors are rife. We leave the issue to the judiciary, knowing that the prisoners were shocked with the action taken against Abu Walid yesterday, because he was one of the first  who sought to positively resolve the issue.”

An officer revealed that “Islamist prisoners in Roumieh were threatened by 20 Islamist prisoners on the same floor, who expected to receive the death sentence. They told them: ‘If you agree to be tried, we'll consider that treason, and you know what treason means to us.’”

The officer pointed out that the main reason behind the threat was that prisoners who already know that their sentences will be severe will not agree to stay alone in prison while their colleagues are being tried, because it would be a divisive force to them.

The main reason for fear in the case of Fatah al-Islam prisoners lies in this strange phenomenon: Security officers say that they do not dare to confront prisoners, without political order, and they feel that “some political quarters want us to help Islamists break out of prison!”

“I cannot speak”

In the previous phone calls,  in response to a question about the relationship between him  as a normal prisoner and Islamists in Block B, a prisoner told As-Safir amid laughter: “I cannot speak.” Later, it turned out that, according to his statement, one of the Islamists “happened to be sitting next to me when I received  the phone call.”

However, the prisoner said yesterday: “The presence of Islamist prisoners on our floor, or rather our presence on their floor, allows us to benefit from several things, such as having coffee in the garden whenever we want, eating whatever we want, and most importantly, our cell phones are sacred.”

The prisoner, who is affiliated to a confession that differs from that of Islamists, said: “There is a mutual respect between us, but we certainly fear them; they are the prison managers, prisoners and jailers.” He noted: “The prisoner who insults the divine honor will have a tough fate; he will be severely beaten by Islamists. But, the punishment for narcotic pills users was reduced from being beaten to being moved to another block.”

If security officers and prisoners in Block B say that prisoners in Fatah al-Islam have their own law and constitution in prison, what is the state waiting for to restore a part of its constitution and prestige, instead of  repeating resonant terms such as, “we will soon”?

After Abu Ibrahim, the kidnapper of the nine Lebanese citizens in Syria, who has challenged the state for nine months, another name should be memorized by the Lebanese: Abu al-Walid, the hijacker of Roumieh prison, with its jailers, prisoners and blocks.

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