By Annie Slemrod
BEIRUT: Human rights activists have said that a draft law reducing jail sentences is a step in the right direction, but further action is needed to truly reform the country’s prison system.
The draft law is on Parliament’s 67-item Wednesday agenda, and having already been approved by the Administration and Justice Committee, it is widely expected to pass. It will reduce prison sentences of one year to nine months, in an effort to reduce overcrowding in the country’s prisons.
Prison conditions have been a hot topic in the country since April uprisings at Roumieh prison, in which four prisoners died and dozens more were injured. The riots have been tied to poor conditions in the prison, including serious overcrowding. Roumieh was originally built to house 2,000 people, and currently holds around 5,500.
Wadih al-Asmar, General Director of the Lebanese Center for Human Rights, told The Daily Star that he sees the law as “a very good step to make prisons in Lebanon more humane … [a reduction in sentences] is something we [have been] asking for … [so] we will be very happy if this law is voted in, and if it is applied by the government.”
Asmar said that although the law is a solid first step, it will have a limited impact as it will only apply to those prisoners who have been sentenced. In Roumieh prison, this is only one third of the prison’s population – the majority of prisoners are being held before their trials because of a measure known as precautionary detention. “We are talking about 2,000 people [in Roumieh prison] that will be affected [by the law],”Asmar said.
Asmar suggested in the future Parliament should consider placing a maximum on the time that can be served in precautionary detention, and said that he thinks “the law should define more effectively when people should be in [precautionary] detention.”
Father Hadi Aya, president of the Association for Justice and Mercy (AJEM), an organization that works in the country’s prisons, called the law “very important.” He said that it is a good short-term solution for overcrowding, as the state “does not have any solutions for overcrowding.
“We support this law,” Aya said, “because the conditions in Lebanon are inhumane. Prison should not mean being stripped of your dignity.”
If the law decreases the stress on prison capacity in the short term, Aya expressed concern that it will not be effective in the long-term. He said that if judges are aware of the three month sentence reduction, they may keep this in mind and simply increase the length of the sentences they hand down.
Further, Aya said that it is not yet clear if the sentence reductions will apply only to current prisoners, or whether they will also apply to those yet to be sentenced. “It is very important that this law is not temporary,” said Aya, “but that it continues to shorten prison sentences.”
Lebanon has a law allowing parole on the books, but it is rarely applied, and Aya suggested that if this law were to be implemented it would be another path to decreasing overcrowding.
While the law will make a first step toward improving the state of the country’s prisons, Aya stressed that overcrowding in itself is not the problem. It affects the availability of quality food, air, sleeping space and water.
Aya stressed that the Roumieh uprising could become a trend if prison conditions are not addressed by the new government quickly. “Roumieh can’t take any new prisoners,” he said. “Now there is outcry in other prisons, which is dangerous.”