Letter from Lebanon: "How Do 40 Prisoners Sleep in A Jail Cell Meant for 10?"

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Letter From Lebanon: "How Do 40 Prisoners Sleep in A Jail Cell Meant for 10?"

By Marilyn Raschka

"How do 40 prisoners sleep in a jail cell meant for 10?"

"They take turns."

Justice is no joke and, in fact, this question and answer were part of a serious dialogue between Lebanese Minister of Justice Bahij Tabbara and officials who conducted him on a January tour of Lebanese courts and prisons. Lebanon's years of conflicts and chaos have done their share of damage to both. A 15 1/2-year slowdown is how one judge interviewed for this article portrayed the decade and a half of war.

The country's judicial system is faced with thousands of backed-up court cases--all to be heard by 300 judges. Seventy judges have been appointed in the last two years--among them some 40 women--but 370 is a long way from the pre-war figure of 530.

A Shortage of Judges

Where did all the judges go? Some died, some emigrated, others retired. During the war the Ministry of Justice Institute that trains judges operated with frequent interruptions, its location being smack on the former front line.

The conditions Tabbara witnessed during his January tour therefore focused badly needed attention on the subject of crime and punishment. The press, using Tabbara's visit to examine the general justice situation, aired complaints both of human rights violations and of specific allegations of alleged bad treatment of convicts.

To be sure, even before the civil war no one ever mistook Lebanon's jails for Club Fed on the Med. Then came the war years in which few jails had "guests." The contending militia groups had sprung not only their own boys, but the general prison population as well.

However, thanks to "normalization," the minister got an eyeful and a nose full when he visited a large prison in the Beirut suburb of Baabda. The stench from the prisoners themselves permeated the place. The prisoners rarely get to shower due to a water shortage. The minister himself prescribed "holding your nose when entering the prisons," and admitted that "more than once I hesitated before giving permission to foreigners wishing to visit prisons."

The visits also revealed that Lebanon has no reform school facilities for younger transgressors. Juvenile offenders are thrown in with the older ones; sexual abuse is rampant behind these closed doors.

Although Tabbara expressed the need for better and more facilities, the state, with virtually every aspect of life in need of rehabilitation, has little money and less motivation to spend it on bettering the lives of those who have made others suffer.

The Case Against Geagea

The whole issue of rebuilding the shattered justice system on a legacy of civil war has been underscored by the criminal court case against 42-year-old ex-militia leader Samir Geagea.

Geagea, once a promising pre-med student at the American University of Beirut, served as commander of the Christian "Lebanese Forces" (LF) militia until his arrest in April 1994. Shortly thereafter, the LF was declared illegal by government decree.

Now Geagea is charged with ordering the Oct. 1990 murder of Christian rival Dany Chamoun and his German wife and two young sons, as well as the February 1994 bombing of a crowded church in which 10 people died. Prosecutors are expected to charge that Geagea carried out the church bombing on Israeli instructions shortly after 29 Palestinian men and boys were killed in an attack by an Israeli settler on the Ibrahimi mosque in Hebron. …