Torture in Roumieh: How the State Deals with its Scandals (II)

2015-09-07    |   

Torture in Roumieh: How the State Deals with its Scandals (II)

The first article of this two-part series outlined how Lebanese authorities restricted the scope of public discussion about this incident, and efforts to address the Roumieh Prison torture scandal. They paved the way for the judiciary to produce the official narrative which would carry the weight of the judiciary’s authority, and as such, be seen as truth and resolve the discussion.

This article is dedicated to a critical reading of the indictment issued by military investigating Judge Riyad Abu Ghayda on July 7, 2015. An examination of the details of this indictment reveals once again that the investigation aimed more to prove a certain hypothesis and accomplish certain goals, rather than to verify the facts. This hypothesis is based on the same claims underpinning the discourse used by the political authorities, namely: that the torture was of an individualistic nature [i.e., the actions and responsibility of individuals] and not systematic; that the only acts of torture that occurred in Roumieh are those that appear in the leaked footage; that the personnel who engaged in these acts did so because the prisoners had attacked their colleagues; and, that these personnel acted against their orders not to attack the prisoners.

Based on this hypothesis, the five accused personnel whose faces appeared in the video (two who participated in the beating, a third who filmed the incident, and two more who concealed it from their leaders) were indicted, while the state and all its organs and other personnel were cleared of all suspicion. Immediately after the indictment was issued, a number of media agencies published it as an account of “the details of the Roumieh Prison torture tapes” without conducting any critical review. Having concluded and published this indictment, the state had, thanks to the cooperation and concord between its institutions, succeeded in turning the scandal into a quasi-normal event or, as the French say, a fait divers, i.e., a short sensationalist news story.

Before examining the details of this indictment, I must point out that my principal criticism of it, once again, does not necessarily stem from my having an alternative narrative. Rather, it stems from my reservations about the methodology that the investigating judge employed in this case, as I explain below.

The incident occurred thusly, right?

An examination of the questions asked in the interrogations of the accused personnel quickly reveals that they followed the pattern of “the incident occurred thusly, right?”. Using such questions, the judge can present the accused with the hypothesis he wants to prove in his indictment decision and demand that the latter corroborate it. When the accused then nods his head, the investigation is complete and the judge can issue an indictment that suits the hypothesis he set out to put forward. The use of this technique is very clearly evident from a number of questions formed around the hypothesis that the acts of torture were individualistic and not systematic, and had no connection, whether close or remote, to the leadership or the Internal Security Forces institution.

Some of the telling questions are:

“Why did you enter the building when you were ordered to stay inside the vehicle and outside the prison?”

This question assumes, without any evidence, that the accused was ordered not to enter the building. The answer that the accused then gave to the question strengthened this supposition. After affirming that he contravened orders, he elaborated further on his behavior by adding “I ordered myself”, according to the indictment’s text. This expression constitutes an eloquent and overstated refutation of any link between the act and the leadership, as it portrays it as the result of a decision the accused made of his own accord. Of course, this expression is atypical and seems like a parody in military and security services based on the notion that subordinates obey their superiors without any consideration for their personal opinions or convictions. In fact, within these services, uttering a phrase such as this is in and of itself considered an act of insubordination that could be graver than the torture committed. Nevertheless, it appears to have been such a welcome confirmation of the official narrative that it warranted inclusion in the indictment’s text.

“The baton with which you beat the prisoners is not military equipment. Nor do the security personnel carry such batons in their work. Where did you get it from?”

This question presupposes that the baton is a personal item belonging to the accused and that it, like before, has no connection to his platoon. The mere act of emphasizing this assumption strips the question of its importance; if the judge knows that the baton is not military equipment, what benefit can a question about its origins provide? In reality, the judge appears to have again been, more than anything else, inviting the accused to corroborate a specific truth. This is reinforced by the accused’s answer, which was no less parody-like than before. According to the indictment, he got the baton from “a workshop near Sahat al-Abed”. Naturally, at this point enquiries about the origin of the baton ended, thus proving that the investigation was only concerned with recording that the baton’s presence in the prison had no connection whatsoever to the Internal Security Forces. The same peculiarity is evident in the testimony that the second person accused of beating gave about the baton he possessed; the one difference was that instead of finding it in the Sahat al–Abed workshop, he found it in the prison’s yard.

“Why did you violate your orders not to attack the prisoners, which were given to all personnel, and proceed to beat them?”

Once again, this question is formed around the following assumption: that an order was directed to all personnel to not violate [general instructions on how to deal with prisoners]. Of course, no evidence of this order has been found anywhere except in the statements of the accused themselves. Again, the accused’s answer –“because my blood was boiling”– confirmed the hypothesis.

The important questions were never asked. Hence, we do not know how the two personnel concerned were allowed to bring a baton into the prison buildings during the revolt. Are personnel allowed, for example, to bring knives, pistols, Kalashnikovs, and whatever other personal equipment they want into the prison? Who is responsible for the dereliction of duty in this regard? Why did they bring a baton into the prison in the first place? Similarly, none of the accused were asked about the nature or source of their orders not to attack. Nor were they asked about their superiors’ oversight over them or about regulatory aspects of the platoons, or security branches to which they belong. Furthermore, neither of the personnel involved in torturing were questioned about why they asked for their actions to be filmed, or why they kept the films and circulated them without fear of punishment. Has the organization of the internal security branches or prison units come to allow personnel to act as they please, even against their superiors’ wishes, without any oversight or accountability? On top of all that, no questions were asked about the stripping of the prisoners that appeared to have occurred in some of the leaked videos.

No room for testimonies that contradict the official narrative

The indictment’s text demonstrates that the judge was content to merely question the personnel who appeared in the leaked videos, and no one else. In his view, they alone were responsible. No other person, including security personnel and their leaders, had any connection, close or remote, to the torture committed; they did not contribute to it in any capacity and knew nothing about it. Hence, the judge implicitly indicated that there is no need to hear testimonies from any of the accused personnel’s superiors or even the prison commander. More worrisome is the fact that he refrained from hearing from any of the torture victims, even those who were subjected to brutal torture in the footage. It was as though their statements do not concern the investigation or make any difference at all. The statements of military personnel are apparently assumed to be true regardless of said personnel’s deviations, and the statements of their victims therefore need not be taken. That some of the accused were indicted for intentional harm, a crime whose punishment is determined by the damage done to the bodies of the victims, makes this even more concerning. Based on the indictment’s text, victims do not appear to have been assessed by any forensic pathologist.

Furthermore, the judge commissioned the chief of the Internal Security Forces’ Information Branch to extensively investigate and hear the testimonies of the personnel subordinate to him to whom the video was leaked, in order to determine the leak’s source. Here too, the judge’s methodology raises important questions. On the one hand, by doing this he appeared unwilling to investigate the matter directly. On the other hand, he chose to commission for this purpose the very body that had been tasked with storming the prison, and whose personnel and leaders are suspected of being involved in the torture. The judge seems to have wanted to hand the investigation over to the body that has the greatest interest in adhering to the official narrative. In light of this, it is unsurprising that these investigations ended up practically anonymizing the source of the leak once it became evident that more than 20 personnel received the footage from different [phone] numbers in Ghana and China and so forth.

Using the language of certainty

In his choice of language, the investigating judge overstepped his role as a judge of suspicion who determines what is likely to have occurred and began instead acting as a judge of the certain. The best indication of this may be his use of the expression “established facts” [thawabit]. Below the heading “Secondly: in Law”, the indictment stated that “before the legal consequences of the accused’s actions are determined, the follow established facts must be deduced”. It then elaborated on the details of these “established facts”, the essence of which is that the crime concerned was individualistic in nature. Hence, it is again evident that the goal of the investigation was not only to prove the culpability of the accused, but also, first and foremost, to exonerate the security institution as a whole. It had thus been “established” the orders given were to not attack any prisoner, that “all personnel except for the two accused complied with these orders”, and that “the striking instrument was not military equipment”. Similarly, the investigating judge had no qualms about using expressions of certitude such as “the filming of the incident confirms the individualistic nature of the incident”. Of course, the goal of using these atypical expressions was to strengthen the official narrative and preempt any doubts about it.

An atypical method of propaganda

Another aspect of the indictment is that it went beyond addressing the problematics [of the case] and determining legal culpability in order to deal with media-related questions. In a number of ways, this approach amounted to propaganda, the goal of which was again to reinforce the aforementioned official narrative.

This is particularly evident when the judge introduced the legal discussion by affirming that the torture was individualistic in nature. Although important, this conclusion seems more pertinent to the international rights discourse and the extent of the state’s commitment to combating torture than to criminal culpabilities in Lebanon. The indictment’s priority thus appears to have been to exonerate Lebanon in the international rights arena, irrespective of the investigation’s eventual conclusions regarding criminal culpabilities.

The indictment did not only exonerate the whole security institution but also went so far as to lavishly praise the discipline and good conduct of its personnel. As noted earlier, the investigation was restricted to the testimonies of the five accused persons; yet the indictment concluded, without justification, that “even though the prisoners had detained a number of officers and NCOs and had burnt and physically injured others, the personnel –except for the two who acted against their superiors’ orders– complied with instructions”. Hence, by virtue of this narrative, the scandal turned into an opportunity to praise the discipline that the security personnel maintained despite the harsh circumstances they faced. Similarly, the investigating judge’s decision to not hear the testimony of any officer can be understood as an effort to avoid raising any suspicion of their involvement in the torture. In other words, they were considered infallible and beyond suspicion.

Additionally, the indictment allocated significant space to highlighting more motives that extenuate and justify the torture. The two accused of beating violated their superiors’ orders due to a desire to “help the young” among their comrades after the prisoners directed “curses” at them “from the windows”. One of the two grew angrier “when one of the prisoners turned to him and said ‘Hey biceps, I’m going to shove that baton…’”. The implication of this is that those accused of beating violated the orders of their leaders not because they are bad, but, on the contrary, because they have some sense of honor. Hence, while confirming Lebanon’s commitment to combatting torture, the indictment also contextualized its description of the brutal torture that occurred within circumstances that invite readers to [sympathetically] with it. The behavior of the two personnel, then, appears as a violation of the law without necessarily being a disgraceful ethical violation. Of course, this depiction of the events was only possible because no testimonies were taken from any of the torture victims.

It was thus that the official narrative of the Roumieh Prison torture scandal was written. The unofficial narrative has yet to be written.

This article is an edited translation from Arabic.


Share the article

Mapped through:

Articles, Fair Trial and Torture, Lebanon, Rule of Law, Accountability and Corruption

For Your Comments

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *