Tension in Lebanon over videos showing torture of Roumieh prison inmates

Roumieh prison
Roumieh prison

Leaked videos showing the torture of Islamist inmates in Lebanon’s notorious Roumieh prison have stoked political controversy in the country, Lebanese media reported on Sunday.

Several Lebanese officials have responded to the videos by promising to bring the perpetrators to justice. Lebanese Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi pledged on Sunday to carry out a full investigation into the case, saying that the behavior showcased in the two videos was “a crime against the nation and humanity”.

According to the reports , Rifi was quoted as saying: “We will see through an investigation until the end. This crime cannot go unpunished.” He reiterated that “two of the perpetrators have already been arrested.”

The secretary general of Islamist Lawyers in Lebanon, Mohamed Sablouh said that they had obtained the two torture videos about a month ago. He spoke about discussions conducted with the interior and justice ministers in this regard.

“We wanted to give a chance for the investigations announced by Interior Minister Nuhad Mashnouk,” Sablouh said, “but unknown parties leaked the videos.” Sablouh said that Mashnouk knows everything about the practice of torture in this prison.

Sablouh also said that Mashnouk had initiated an investigation into the incidents that took place in Roumieh Prison in April, in which the inmates were also sexually abused.

Based on the investigation, Mashnouk filed a complained against the perpetrators to the military prosecution.

In one of the videos, a prisoner lies on the floor covered in water, stripped to his underwear with his hands tied behind his back. He is asked about the accusation against him, and replies: “Transporting terrorists.”

Then, a guard beats him repeatedly with a green baton, while another guard, who does not appear before the camera, encourages the first one and demands that the prisoner kiss his boots.

In the other video, about a dozen prisoners, all stripped to their underwear with their hands tied behind them, are seated on a floor. A guard can be seen beating at least two prisoners, shouting at one: “Lower your voice or I will put your eyes out.”

As a result of these videos, Sablouh has called for the resignation of the interior minister, noting that the torture scenes are distressing for the families of the inmates.

Other officials, including former Prime Minister Najib Miqati, have called for a thorough investigation into the videos.

The leader of Lebanon’s Progressive Socialist Party, Walid Jumblatt, took to Twitter to denounce the torture footage, likening it to “a scene from a Syrian prison.”

Three of the prisoners in the videos have been identified as Sheikh Omar Atrash from the north-eastern border town of Arsal, Qatibah Al-As’ad from the Lebanese border area of Wadi Khaled and Wael Al-Samad from the Dinnieh town of Bakhoun in north Lebanon.

Mashnouk warns 

Nuhad MashnoukInterior Minister Nouhad al-Mashnouq on Monday warned of attempts to take advantage of the  shocking  videos leaked from the Roumieh prison to undermine the Internal Security Forces and other state institutions.

“This act must not be used to undermine the reputation of the ISF,” said Mashnouq at a press conference he held after visiting Roumieh and meeting with ISF officers and the abused Islamist inmates who appeared in the videos.

“The practices do not justify insults against the ISF or any Lebanese security agency or institution. The interior ministry  will act according to its jurisdiction towards any officer or security guard who breaches the humanitarian rights of any inmate,” he pledged.

Mashnouq noted that during his meeting with the abused prisoners, they told him that “the abuses stopped” after they were moved to the prison facility’s Block B.

“There will be follow-up on the way the prisoners are being treated and keenness on implementing the law. I will not tolerate any mistake against any prisoner,” the minister vowed.

“The probe is ongoing and I tell the politicians that they are only serving the agenda of extremism by condemning state institutions,” Mashnouq cautioned, adding that he will do all he can to “protect state institutions and rectify any mistake that they might commit.”

He promised “firm and harsh measures” against the violators “in line with the applicable laws.”

In response to a question, the minister added: “No one is saying that the members of the army and the security forces are saints. Mistakes happen and they are rectified afterwards.”

Mashnouq also dismissed media reports alleging that Justice Minister  Rifi orchestrated the release of the videos and the street protests that ensued to undermine his status as interior minister.

Mashnouq and Rifi are both members of the Future movement and observers see them as potential candidates to the post of prime minister.

Asked about calls for his resignation, the minister said: “The issue of my resignation is not important. What’s important is preserving the state instead of emptying its institutions.”

Speaking to reporters before a security meeting at the Grand Serail, Rifi described Mashnouq as his “friend,” slamming the accusations against him as “the peak of bankruptcy.”

“I’m cooperating with  Future Movement leader former PM   Saad Hariri and Mashnouq to contain the anger on the streets,” the minister added.

He described the footage from Roumieh as “a manifestation of the school of (Syrian President) Bashar Assad, which has started to crumble.”

Rifi also noted that the security personnel who appeared in the videos as well as those who filmed and leaked the footage have all been detained.

Speaking during the security meeting, Prime Minister Tammam Salam described the abuse as an “obscene and unethical act” that “violates the Lebanese Constitution.”

Salam expressed to Mashnouq and Rifi his “full support for the steps that they have taken  so far in order to address the case, and for their wisdom, national responsibility and keenness on the law,” the state owned  National News Agency said.

The premier also warned against “exploiting a rogue and unusual behavior in the ISF’s conduct to insult this national institution.”

The graphic videos sent shockwaves across the country and triggered street protests by angry demonstrators after they went viral on social networking websites.

Mashnouq has announced that they were filmed around two months ago following riots at the prison facility.

Islamist prisoners who were being held at Roumieh’s Block B transferred to a new ward following increased lawlessness and worsening conditions.

In January, security forces took full control of the notorious Block B after storming the building and seizing illegal items from Islamist prisoners.

Around 800 to 900 inmates, most of them Islamists, were transferred to the new Block D.