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    Broken promises

    “Like giving Panadol to a cancer patient,” was how one human rights activist put it. “A time bomb that makes victims of everyone,” was the metaphor Interior Minister Ziyad Baroud chose to employ. Ineffective or explosive, Lebanon’ prison system is both terminally ill and deeply unstable.

    Riots over the weekend at Roumieh Prison can only be viewed as the inevitable conclusion to the failure of due diligence. Broken promises, vague and laxly enforced laws, corruption at every relevant level and the years-old absence of anything approaching proactive governance have led the 6000 or so prisoners in the country to a dead end.

    For too long, lawmakers have treated the woeful state of prisons as the collateral damage of a failing state, a product of legislative inertia rather than political fecklessness.

    The familiar proclamations from security forces, that Roumieh’s residents hit boiling point over obscure and myopic measures taken by the state, are misleading. Mutiny did not break out because of cell phone blocks or a crackdown on smuggled substances. The real reason why riots continue to occur is simple: Prisoners have stopped believing the lies.

    Overcrowding across Lebanese prisons was going to be addressed. Those awaiting trial would see the light of a courtroom. Those who have finished their sentences would be released and rehabilitated. If you heard so many promises that your existence would get better, and were still be stuck in a four meter square cell with six other inmates all hours, you’d stop believing too.

    The problems with prisons need urgent attention, but not from a governmental perspective, as Baroud suggested. Issues concerning justice and human rights are – or should be, at least – the sole remit of the judiciary. What remains of government is so overburdened with political froth that it can do without another conundrum with which to grapple. Those bearing the brunt of penal inadequacy are from all sects and sections of society; no one party should be given the chance to sabotage vital reform.

    Lebanon’s prison situation chips away at its reputation, at all attempts to portray itself as a place where democracy is robust and human rights are upheld. The cases of human rights abuses in the country are no secret. They already form permanent black marks in the eyes of other countries. Fail to address the derisory state of prisons, and global disrespect will be small wonder.

    The clock is ticking and the placebo has worn off. It is time for the government to find a cure or deal with side effects of its own making.

    The Daily Star
    04.04.2011

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