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'Torture videos' roil Lebanon. Why that's a cause for optimism.

The potential of newly released videos showing mistreatment in a Lebanese prison to inflame sectarian passions and destabilize the country has raised hopes the government will enact reforms.

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    Residents and family members of Islamist militants in Roumieh prison gesture during a protest calling for the release of Islamist militants detained by Lebanese forces, and criticizing the sentence duration of former Lebanese minister Samaha in Tripoli May 15, 2015.
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A political storm has erupted in Beirut with the leaking of two videos showing Islamist prisoners being beaten in Lebanon’s largest prison.

The emergence of the videos over the weekend has cast a spotlight on the phenomenon of torture, which, according to human rights organizations, is widely practiced in the Middle East but rarely mentioned in local political discourse.

But the furor over the “torture videos," which have sparked tit-for-tat accusations among politicians, protests in Sunni areas of the country, and a brief prison riot, has raised hopes that the Lebanese authorities will take measures to prevent the further ill treatment of detainees.

“That’s the key challenge,” says Nadim Houry, deputy director of the Middle East and North African Division of Human Rights Watch. “In the past, the emergence of these kinds of videos has led to various statements and declarations calling for initiatives, but they lose momentum very quickly.”

The difference this time, Mr. Khoury adds, is that the videos of Sunni Islamists being beaten have the potential to inflame sectarian passions and destabilize the security situation in the country, a threat that could spur the government to act.

“Such videos are not only bad for Lebanon’s human rights records, which [the Lebanese government] might not care that much about, but it can also be a factor of instability,” he says.

One of the two videos shows several prisoners stripped to their underwear, handcuffed and kneeling in a cell being beaten, kicked, and slapped by guards. A second video shows a handcuffed bearded man being repeatedly beaten with a baton. The victims were identified as Sunni Islamist detainees held in Roumieh prison, northeast of Beirut.

Six prison guards have been arrested, according to the Lebanese government. The names and sectarian affiliation of the guards have not been made public.

“These incidents happen, but I stress: We are the only Arab state that has referred officers who mistreated prisoners to the military court,” Lebanese Interior Minister Nohad Mashnouq said Sunday when the scandal broke. “We have always deplored the abuses and torture that take place in Syrian prisons, and I won’t tolerate similar acts in Lebanese prisons.”

Roumieh prison was built for 3,500 inmates but holds around 8,000 in cramped and squalid conditions. It has long been a focus of human rights campaigners.

Torture 'pervasive'

Last October, the United Nations Committee against Torture reported that torture in Lebanon is “pervasive,” and offered a list of 34 recommendations to ensure the eradication of the practice. Although Lebanese officials say they do not condone torture, little action has been taken by the government to fulfill the UN’s recommendations, according to human rights activists.

“They have ignored the report and in fact criticized it. We don’t feel that human rights are one of the priority issues for the Lebanese authorities,” says Saadeddine Shatila, the Lebanon representative of the Alkarama Foundation, a Geneva-based human rights organization.

In June 2013, the Lebanese Army fought a two-day battle against Sunni supporters of Sheikh Ahmad Assir, a radical Salafi cleric. In the aftermath of the fighting, which left 18 soldiers and 28 gunmen dead, a video emerged showing Lebanese soldiers interrogating then kicking a captured follower of Sheikh Assir. Another detained Assir supporter died while in army custody, and his body carried signs of torture. The army subsequently arrested the soldiers involved in both incidents, but it remains unclear whether they were punished.

“These things should be more transparent and the public should know about such cases,” Mr. Shatila says.

However, the political and sectarian implications of the Roumieh videos have overshadowed calls for an improvement in the human rights conditions in Lebanese prisons.

Sunni alleges a Hezbollah political motive

Inmates at Roumieh briefly rioted Tuesday, demanding cellphones and wireless Internet. The prison’s notorious Block B, which held many Islamist prisoners, was a no-go area for guards. In January, police special forces stormed the block, and its detainees were transferred to another part of the prison after it emerged that a deadly twin suicide bombing in the northern city of Tripoli days earlier had been coordinated by Block B inmates equipped with cellphones.

Protests have been held in the mainly Sunni city of Tripoli amid calls for the resignation of Mr. Mashnouq. He is a leading figure in the moderate Sunni Future Movement, which is a foe of the powerful Shiite Hezbollah party.

Ashraf Rifi, Lebanon’s justice minister and also a Future Movement official, has accused Hezbollah of leaking the videos in an attempt to cause a rift between him and Mashnouq. Both men are potential future prime ministers.

“This campaign aims at targeting the moderate Sunnis, their unity and leadership,” Rifi said.

Hezbollah shot back, saying in a statement that “it is unfortunate that we are living in a country where a justice minister would make accusations without any evidence.”

Risk of fading outrage

Advocates of reforms see a risk that the public outrage over the videos and the promises to crack down on ill treatment will fall by the wayside amid the political bickering.

Khoury, of Human Rights Watch, says the path to reform is not “rocket science” and is well known to the Lebanese authorities. It includes an independent monitoring system for correctional facilities, greater transparency in prosecuting those committing torture, and calling on international donors to the Lebanese Army and security services, among them the United States, to help “build accountable institutions and not simply send them fancy equipment and newer weapons.”

“This is now the key moment,” he says. “The test now is whether these condemnations, these declarations [to eradicate torture] will have any teeth.”

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