Lebanon’s overcrowded prison may be courting COVID-19 health disaster

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Inmates produce protective face masks, to be used by security members and inmates themselves as part of the preventive measures against the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), inside Roumieh prison, Lebanon, in this handout picture received by Reuters on April 6, 2020. (REUTERS)
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The Roumieh Prison, located east of Beirut, houses more than 5,500 prisoners and has a separate juvenile section. (Reuters/File)
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Updated 14 September 2020

Lebanon’s overcrowded prison may be courting COVID-19 health disaster

  • Inmates’ families panic over reports about spread of coronavirus in Roumieh Prison, organize protests

BEIRUT: Reports about the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Roumieh Prison, the largest in Lebanon, have caused panic among the families of inmates who fear disaster if quick measures are not taken.

Several guards and inmates are reported to have contracted the virus. Lebanon’s prisons already suffer from severe overcrowding, running at 160 percent of capacity at the end of 2019.

Roumieh, located east of Beirut, houses more than 5,500 prisoners and has a separate juvenile section.

The prison was opened in 1970 with a capacity of about 1,500 prisoners, but the number has grown over the years, making social distancing impossible. The possibility of granting a general amnesty to all inmates is currently under discussion.

Lawyer Ghida Franjieh said: “The judiciary ordered the release of many detainees since the announcement of the general mobilization to avoid crowding in detention facilities.”

She added that parliamentary intervention would be required to ensure the release of those convicted of minor crimes.

“There are many questions that need answers: Were the infections discovered in the early stages?” she added. “Were the infected people isolated immediately?”

“The increase of overcrowding could lead to a health disaster in Roumieh Prison that may cross prison boundaries if the internal security forces and the judiciary do not take all necessary measures to protect infected prisoners and those in contact with them, especially since many prisoners suffer from weak immunity due to poor living conditions and health.”

Many prisoners have complained of fatigue, high temperatures, coughing, shortness of breath, sore throats, loss of smell, and other symptoms. The prison pharmacy has run out of painkillers and fever remedies, according to reports.

Health Minister Hamad Hassan confirmed that there had been COVID-19 cases in Roumieh, but said infections were chiefly “among the security forces in the prison” and that “a very limited number of infections were reported among the prisoners.

“We are working to secure a hospital in Bekaa and another in Beirut to treat the detainees,” he added.

The General Directorate of the Internal Security Forces stated: “Thirteen prisoners and nine security personnel tested positive for the virus on Sept. 11, and a place for quarantine has been prepared in the central prison, in cooperation with the International Red Cross and the World Health Organization (WHO), and sections have been allocated in government hospitals for necessary treatment.”

Families of many detainees in Roumieh organized a protest in Tripoli, calling for necessary measures for the protection of prisoners and to prevent the spread of the virus among them.

The total number of people infected with COVID-19 in Lebanon has reached 24,000, as the daily number of infections has exceeded 500 since mid-August. The total number of deaths as of Sunday was 239.

Lebanese Foreign Minister Charbel Wehbe has also been infected with the virus. His ministry’s employees were subjected to PCR tests last week, and it was found that three people who had contact with the minister were also infected.

Tripoli MP Faisal Karami expressed his concern over the spread of the virus, with only 26 beds to treat COVID-19 patients in his home city, with people having to wait for six days to take tests.

Karami revealed that the residents of Tripoli and its municipality “do not yet believe in the existence of the virus, and people do not adhere to the preventive measures.”

Meanwhile, a spokesman for the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), Andrea Tenente, said 90 peacekeepers had contracted the virus.

“Eighty-eight of them belong to the same unit. They have been kept in quarantine and all precautions are being taken to prevent the spread of the virus among the peacekeepers,” he said.

“UNIFIL is taking very strict precautionary measures with all its military and civilian elements inside and outside their centers, by following all approved protocols, including quarantine and isolation, in line with the guidelines of the WHO and the Lebanese government. With regard to our employees, we have reviewed the roles of all.”

He said all UNIFIL activities related to implementing its mandate in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 1701 remain unaffected.



Iranian asylum seeker stuck in limbo on divided Cyprus

Iranian singer Omid Tootian, 46, gestures during an interview at a coffee shop in the UN-controlled buffer zone in the Cypriot capital Nicosia, on September 23, 2020, where he's been stuck since mid-September. (AFP)
Updated 27 September 2020

Iranian asylum seeker stuck in limbo on divided Cyprus

  • Because his songs are very critical of the Iranian regime, Tootian fears that if he returns to the north of the island, he will first be sent back to Turkey and then to Iran

NICOSIA: Dissident Iranian singer Omid Tootian has for days been sleeping in a tent in the buffer zone of the world’s last divided capital, after being refused entry by the Republic of Cyprus.
“I can’t go to one side or the other,” the performer, in his mid-40s, whose songs speak out against Iranian authorities, told AFP. “I’m stuck living in the street.”
His tent is pitched between two checkpoints in western Nicosia, among the weeds outside an abandoned house in the quasi-“no man’s land” that separates the northern and southern parts of Cyprus, which has been divided since 1974.
In early September, he traveled to the north of the Mediterranean island, controlled by the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), recognized only by Ankara.
Two weeks later, Tootian, who had been living in Turkey for around three years, tried for the first time to seek asylum in the Republic of Cyprus, which controls the southern two-thirds of the island and is in the EU.  But once at the green line, the 180 -km buffer zone that traverses the island and is patrolled by UN peacekeepers, he was denied entry into the south.
Refusing to return to the TRNC, where he fears he would be in danger, Tootian found himself in limbo in the few hundred meters of land that divides the two territories.
“I don’t know why they haven’t approved my entry ... but I think it’s because of the coronavirus,” he said, speaking at the pro-unification Home for Cooperation community center in the buffer zone where he eats, grooms and spends most of his days.
“But I hope things will become clear because now I don’t know what will happen, and it’s a very difficult situation.”
Because his songs are very critical of the Iranian regime, Tootian fears that if he returns to the north of the island, he will first be sent back to Turkey and then to Iran.

Turkey is no longer a safe country for me because the Turkish regime is close to Iran.

Omid Tootian, Dissident Iranian singer

“Turkey is no longer a safe country for me because the Turkish regime is close to Iran,” he said, adding that he had for the past six months been receiving anonymous “threats” from unknown callers using private phone numbers.
In July, three Iranians were sentenced to death by the Islamic republic. Two of them had initially fled to Turkey and, according to the non-governmental group the Center for Human Rights in Iran, Turkish authorities cooperated with Tehran to repatriate them.
Since arriving at the checkpoint, Tootian has tried “four or five times” in a week to enter, without success, despite the help of a migrant rights advocacy group known as KISA and the UN mission in the buffer zone.
According to European and international regulations, Cyprus cannot expel an asylum seeker until the application has been considered and a final decision issued.
The police said “they have restrictions not to let anybody in,” KISA member Doros Polycarpou told AFP.
Cypriot police spokesman Christos Andreou said “it is not the responsibility of the police” to decide who can enter the Republic of Cyprus.
They “follow the instructions of the Ministry of Interior,” put in place “because of the pandemic,” he added.
According to the ministry, “all persons who are willing to cross from a legal entry point to the area controlled by the Republic must present a negative COVID-19 test carried out within the last 72 hours” — a requirement Tootian said he had fulfilled.
Polycarpou charges that the Cypriot “government has used the pandemic to restrict basic human rights.”
A spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency in Cyprus Emilia Strovolidou said “there are other means to protect asylum seekers and public health at the same time ... we can test people when they arrive or take quarantine measures.”
“We have someone who is seeking international protection, he should have access to the process,” she added.
Due to the closure of other migration routes to Europe, asylum applications have increased sixfold over the last five years in Cyprus — a country of fewer than 1 million inhabitants — from 2,265 in 2015 to 13,650 in 2019, according to Eurostat data.