Torture in Roumieh: How the State Deals With its Scandals (I)

2015-08-11    |   

Torture in Roumieh: How the State Deals With its Scandals (I)

On June 21, 2015, after footage of Islamist prisoners being tortured (stripped and savagely beaten) in Roumieh Prison was published and spread on social media, the Lebanese authorities had to confront two types of discourses. The first was an Islamist discourse propounded by Islamist groups that held protests in several areas around the country to defend the Roumieh Prison detainees. This discourse went so far as to call for the resignation of Minister of Interior Nohad Machnouk. The second was a rights-based discourse expressed in a statement issued by a number of rights organizations on June 26, 2015. In the statement, the organizations argued that the leaked videos settled their runningdispute with the government over the nature of torture occurring in Lebanon, namely, that it is systematic, not the isolated actions of individuals. While the Islamist discourse has grave security implications, the rights-based discourse has implications no less impactful on the level of public awareness and the extent of the government’s commitment to the United Nations Convention against Torture. Significantly, the second type of discourse comes less than a year after the United Nations Committee against Torture (CAT) published a report stating that Lebanon practices systematic torture (a report that the government at the time considered untruthful and unfair).
Faced with the rise of these two discourses, Lebanese authorities had to absorb the shock of the scandal so that they could then construct an official narrative offering a totally different interpretation of the leaked videos. Unable to dispute or deny the footage, they conveniently imposed an official narrative that was as compatible as possible with their interests. They sought to claim one key point: that the torture documented via film and audio was not systematic, but the actions of individual personnel responding to exceptional circumstances. Put more clearly, they had to couple their efforts to blame a few personnel with efforts to affirm the absolute innocence of the state bodies as a whole.
This article will describe the steps that the authorities took in response to the Roumieh Prison scandal. which serves as a worthy case study of the Lebanese political system’s immunity to, and its ability to circumvent, scandals. How do ‘the authorities’ deal with scandals? To what extent does the official concerned, facing the horror of such scandals, find himself compelled to take an initiative to ease public shock and restore his followers’ faith in him and in themselves? What is the essence of these initiatives? What are their actual outcomes? Do their effects end as soon as public opinion is appeased? Or do they have an actual impact on accountability, or on the legal and judicial systems?
While a number of [state] bodies assumed the task of absorbing the shock of this particular scandal, the task of sealing the official narrative was left to the judiciary so that the ‘assumed judicial truth’ could then be used as armor to block, or at least limit the effects of the ‘scandal’. For this narrative to succeed and carry the force it requires, it had to be presented as the narrative. It needed to be seen as a clear, credible narrative based on evidence and investigation, and backed by the awe of the judiciary. Conversely, all other narratives needed to be seen as dubious, demagogic interpretations that are not based on serious dataand that will, intentionally or unintentionally, destabilize the country and damage the prestige of the security institutions.
Before I describe the steps that the state took, it should be noted that the principle objection I express in this article does not necessarily stem from my holding of an alternative, conflicting narrative. Rather, it stems from the existence of sufficient cause to doubt the methodology that these bodies employed. This methodology appears to have been aimed more at proving a certain thesis than corroborating the facts.
Pouring Water into Wine
Initially, in order to absorb the shock of the scandal as explained earlier, the state needed to quickly take hold of it and demonstrate the extent of its concern about it. The state’s institutions, each in its area of jurisdiction, had to move with exceptional speed and vigor to contain the scandal byestablishing the appropriate framework for public discussion and remedial mechanisms. Besides the hidden quarrel that initially occurred between Minister of Justice Ashraf Rifi and Minister of Interior Nohad Machnouk, there was complete concord between the public institutions in this area. In short, all their measures and official statements seemed to be aimed at affirming, or at least implying, that the issue does not warrant all the outrage it attracted. Hence, the French expression “to pour water into a glass of wine” –i.e., to dilute a bitter situation– applies, as I will detail below.
The Source of the Leaks is More Important than the Identity of the Torturers
As soon as the footage had spread, the political discourse that emerged focused on the identity of the person who leaked them and their motives. Complicated scenarios were even drawn up for the purpose of accusing one party or another of the leak.[1]While some analyses framed the leak as part of a power struggle within the one party (the Future Movement) between the minister of justice and the minister of interior, others connected it to the efforts of certain people to incite the Sunni populace, which would surely be influenced by the sight of Salafi Islamists being tortured and humiliated.[2]According to such a mindset, the act of leaking the videos is graver that the acts of torture themselves, as the former could shake up the security situation in several Lebanese cities. It was therefore expected that distress about the leak would prevail over distressabout the torture.
The implication of the logic described above is that public interest would have been best served had the torture remained unseen, unheard, or unknown. Once it became known, it was best, so the same logic went to focus onprosecuting those who leaked the videos in order to prevent such leaks from happening again. We should refrain from discussing the torture in Roumieh Prison in order to avoid aggravating the wound and inciting anger among Islamists. Questions about the minister of interior’s role in covering up the torture thereby disappear amidst sympathy for him for having been the subject of a campaign targeting his good conduct,[3]or even a victim himself (of the leak).
Of course, politicians are not the only ones responsible for thisdiscourse; rather, media outlets, both those directed by political forces or independent of them, bear much responsibility for giving the leak issue and the political contexts it presupposes precedence over the issue of torture with its distressing effects on the conscience.
Perhaps the best evidence that the leak issue was inflated and abused is that it disappeared from public debate as soon as anger over the torture videos had subsided. This is clearly evident in the indictment that the military investigating judge issued on July 6, 2015. The indictment practically anonymized the leaking party without attracting any criticism or opposition for doing so. Hence, oncethe public’s agitation had subsided, the leak issue, like the torture issue, became unimportant.
Efforts to exonerate the state from the torture… and to implicitly justify it
Alongside the efforts to shift the topic of discussion,vigorous efforts were also being made to strip the torture scenes of their unwanted dimensions. The scandal had to be understood as the actions and reactions of individuals in exceptional circumstances, not the product of orders issued by the leadership as part of a systematic policy of torturing prisoners. In this regard, officials (the minister of interior, the minister of justice, and Director General of the Internal Security Forces Ibrahim Basbous) paired their pledge to hold the perpetrators accountable with an exoneration of the state and all its bodies. They even occasionally praised the state bodies for having the courage to investigate the transgressions attributed to their personnel.[4]
This discourse went even further. Despite stressing the need to punish the individuals involved in the acts of torture, the discourse implicitly justified their behavior. This is clearly evident in the conversation that the minister of interior had with journalists. After stating that “the issue is over and is now before the military courts; we cannot try an institution of 30 thousand personnel because of the transgressions and perpetrations of 5 among them”, he expressed his puzzlement over “the focus on this film when, just 20 days earlier, a film was shown of the prisoners torturing security personnel and no one batted an eyelid or assigned it any importance”.[5]With this comment he killed three birds with one stone. Firstly, he stressed that the torture was the actions of individuals and not systematic. Secondly, he stirred up a mixture of partisan sentiment (occupational, nationalistic, and sectarian) against takfiris to counteract the partisanship of Salafist Islam. Thirdly and worst of all, he glossed over the transgressions of the personnel involved in the torture by portraying their acts as a consequence of noble motives, i.e., the personnel’s desire to defend the dignity of their institutions and their colleagues who had been subjected to atrocious attacks.
In the same vein, a number of social media networks referenced the acts that the detained Islamists (the “terrorists”) had perpetrated in various locations. They also broadcasted videos of security personnel being attacked to counteract the torture videos.
While The Legal Agenda and a number of rights organizations called for a sit-in to denounce the torture and express solidarity with its victims, it received a large amount of comments and abuse on its social media page. Many comments casted doubts over The Legal Agenda’s credibility on the basis that it has not organized protests against attacks on the army or security personnel. Some even declared that the Roumieh prisoners are terrorists and therefore have no rights at all.
Within 48 hours of the spread of the footage, the government commissioner to the military court had hastily begun proceedings against five military personnel and referred them to the military investigating judge. On his part, the judge put his seal on the official narrative via the text of the indictment that he issued on July 6, 2015, which I will cover in the second installment of this two-part series.
Legislating for the future instead of ensuring accountability for the past
The state employs another measure no less frequent to deal with its scandals: it hastily announces legislative reforms while simultaneously limiting demands for accountability. The goal of this measure is to divert the discussion arising from major violations away from accountability and and form taking clear, swift steps to hold specific officialsresponsible,and towards legislative reforms and the long-term steps, which target nobody. This is evident in the discourse of the Parliament’s Human Rights Committee, which convened a meeting with record speed on June 24, 2015, i.e., less than three days after the videos’ leak. Contrary to the expectations raised by the haste of this move, the meeting’s concluding statement, which was published on the National News Agency’s website, made no mention of any measure to address the acts of torture that occurred in Roumieh Prison.
Instead, the statement focused on improving prison conditions and generally strengthening Lebanon’s laws on torture. It was as though the only importance of the events in Roumieh Prison lies in the problems and loopholes they reveal in legislation and regulations, whether related to torture or prisons. The recommendations section of the statement eloquently expressed this when it began by stating that “the discussions concluded … by going beyond this incident to review the torture situation inside the jails and prisons so that the laws and international agreements can be applied”. The statement then elaborated on a series of recommendations that focused on future reforms: take executive measures to improve prison conditions; effectuate article 402 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which compels judges to visit prisons; approve bills pending in parliament, particularly the bill to amend article 401 of thePenal Code, which addresses torture; and establish and approve the law for the National Commission to Combat Torture.
Although these recommendations are important and the legislative system does require development in this area, it is remarkable that the committee avoided making any reference, even perfunctory, to its efforts or desire to ensure that the perpetrators of the torture in Roumieh Prison are held accountable and that culpability for the incident is determined. This is even more remarkable given that the minister of interior had, when boasting about the suppression of the revolt inside the prison, denied that any torture had occurred.
The deputy chair of the committee, Michel Moussa, went even further in confirming that the practice of oversight power has been relinquished. He did this by preempting judicial investigations with a disclaimer categorically exonerating the minister of interior and the security institution concerned. This can be read from his assertion, made on the margins of the meeting, that the acts of torture were the isolated actions of individuals.
Based on these considerations, the meeting appears to have been aimed at absorbing the reactions to the scandal and preempting inquiries by the United Nations Committee Against Torture –by diverting attention and discussion– than to survey the facts and draw conclusions. This assessment is reinforced by the fact that the parliamentary committee ignored the most important lesson to be learned from the Roumieh Prison scandal in the area of legislative reform: that the bill to amend article 401 of the Penal Code is inadequate. In blatant contravention of the UN Convention against Torture, the bill does not address torture that occurs outside the context of interrogations and examinations,[6]as the abuses in Roumieh Prison did. While it was expected that the Roumieh prison incident would be exploited to re-orientatethis bill, the committee reaffirmed its contents with no reservation whatsoever.
Of course, my principle objection here is not to legislative reform in the area of torture, which remains important and desirable despite its shortcomings. Rather, I object to its use, whether intentional or unintentional, as a tool to obstruct accountability. In other words, I object to the use of legislative reform as readily available evidence to refute any accusation that the state systematically employs torture and to prove that the state is determined to combat it. A comparison between the Human Rights Committee’s discourse in this case and the discourse that the Lebanese government used to respond to the aforementioned United Nations Committee against Torture's report is sufficient to prove that [such use of legislative reforms] occurs. The latter discourse pertaining to CAT also focused primarily on parliament’s efforts to pass laws to combat torture. The extreme slowness of legislative work raises further concerns regarding this tendency as it means that the work can be publicized and used, time and time again across the years, to counteract any torture scandals.
This approach –responding to a scandal with promises of reform– is not novel, as is evidenced by the manner in which the state has dealt with other equally impactful scandals. The most revealing example is the state’s behavior in the wake of the scandal over the arbitrary detention of four officers in the case of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri’s murder. These officers were detained for more than four years even though the investigation file contained no evidence, or even cause for suspicion, for their involvement in the murder. To avoid holding the judges involved in the arbitrary detention accountable or dismissing them from their eminent positions, the Supreme Judicial Council and the Ministry of Justice sought to divert attention away from the actions of these judges. They did this by arguing that the problem was not the judges’ misconduct, but rather the legal texts that place no limit on preventative detention in certain exceptional cases (including murder cases); as though judges may [rightfully] imprison any person, even without any evidence, as long as no legal texts prohibit them from doing so.
To appease the public’s agitation, the Ministry of Justice drafted a bill to place an upper limit on preventative detention in all felony cases, including murder, and to abolish exceptions to this limit; the bill was then approved by the Council of Ministers. This all occurred within a few days of the scandal’s exposure. Thus, the state gave the citizenry the impression that it learned the lessons and, on account of its responsibility, was taking steps as quickly as possible to prevent a repetition of the mistakes and the scandal. While these ‘responsible’ steps did assuage the public’s shock over the arbitrary detention scandal, the amended version of the bill that was passed approximately a year later totally contradicted the bill’s original content and mandating reasons. Instead of abolishing the exceptions to the upper limit on preventative detention, the bill added a new exception: “terrorism felonies”.[7] Most notably, this turnaround occurred amidst public indifference –no reservation or criticism was expressed– after the citizenry had completely forgotten about the bill’s original goal and the reason for its drafting.
In light of this reform initiative and its eventual outcome, the state appears to have no qualms about lavishly making promises of reform (even without conviction) to ease shocks to public opinion, as long as the fulfilment of these promises is, due to their nature, tied to a long term calendar. The lengthy period required to accomplish legislative reforms frees the state from the pressure of the scandal and buys it time. With the benefit of new circumstances and, most importantly, the factor of forgetfulness, the state then has ample opportunity to abandon the promised reforms or divert their course at a later time.
This, then, is what can be said about the steps that the state took to weather the scandal. Our remaining task, [outlined in the forthcoming part two], is to analyze the official narrative endorsed by the military investigating judge.
This article is an edited translation from Arabic.

[1] For example, in statements made to Al Joumhouria on June 23, 2015, Rifi elaborately described who stands to benefit from the leak, the aim of which was, in his view, to distract public opinion from the losses sustained by Hezbollah and the Syrian regime and to divide the Sunni populace between moderates and extremists. An Al-Akhbar article published on June 25, 2015 accused the advisor of the minister of justice of leaking the videos. In a sermon delivered during Iftar on June 27, 2015, Mufti of Tripoli Malek Shaar stated that the leak was aimed at inciting Sunni-Sunni discord.
[2] Marwan Charbel in an interview with Al-Manar, June 23, 2015; also, As-Safir and Al-Akhbar, June 22, 2015.
[3] This expression was used by Minister of Social Affairs Rashid Derbas.
[4] The statement was published on June 21, 2015.
[5] National News Agency, June 6, 2015.
[6] See: “The Administration and Justice Committee Mutilates the Moukheiber Proposal to Punish Torture and Jointly Redefines It”, The Legal Agenda, October 22, 2014.
[7] See: Nizar Saghieh’s, “The Pedagogy of the Hariri Tribunal: the Amendment of Article 108 as an Example”, Al-Akhbar, June 13, 2010.

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