Home > Press Articles > Foreigners kept for years in arbitrary detention- the Daily Star

Foreigners kept for years in arbitrary detention- the Daily Star

7/10/2011

By Annie Slemrod

BEIRUT: Yusuf’s father was executed on live television when he was 10 years old. He’s not sure what his father’s crime was, but does know that Baghdad became increasingly unsafe for his family, as uncles began to disappear.

Watching his family “become extinct,” Yusuf sought refuge in Lebanon, traveling via Syria in 1999.

But a few years later, Yusuf was arrested and convicted of a crime. Having served his three-year sentence, Yusuf anticipated his release and resettlement in another country, as he had registered as a refugee with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Instead, he languished in prison for three more years.

Yusuf, who does not want his real name published, fell victim to a practice called arbitrary detention. Also known as administrative detention, it is applied to foreigners – including refugees and asylum-seekers – who are kept in prison or other detention centers under the authority of General Security, despite having completed their sentences.

The numbers of those in administrative detention are ever-changing and tough to count. Nizar Saghieh, a human rights lawyer who has worked on arbitrary detention cases, told The Daily Star that in 2010 around 413 foreigners were being held past their sentences in Roumieh prison, amounting to some 10 percent of the prison’s population. Berna Habib of Frontiers Ruwad, an organization that works with detainees, says that as of the end of this September another 10 Iraqis who have served their terms were being held at General Security’s offices in Adlieh.

The practice of arbitrary detention seems to have stemmed in part from a lack of clear procedures to deal with refugee and asylum seekers in Lebanon. Although it is not a signatory to the 1951 U.N. refugee convention, in 2003 Lebanon signed a memorandum of understanding with UNHCR. The memorandum delegates the responsibility for refugees to the U.N. body, and allows it to issue refugee certificates to those who register while waiting for UNHCR resettlement in third countries.

But a 1962 Lebanese law still criminalizes refugees who enter the country either legally or illegally, says Saghieh. Foreigners enter the criminal justice system in any number of ways. Some are stopped at checkpoints and arrested because officers do not consider refugee certificates proper identification. Other officers accept the identification and let them pass.

Those who are arrested for illegal entry or holding expired visas are usually sentenced to a month in prison and a fine, says Saghieh. Other refugees, like Yusuf, are arrested for a crime and so fall into the justice system’s net in a more traditional manner.

But either way, for many refugees, a first sentence is only the beginning of a long ordeal.

Saghieh says non-registered refugees are told to pay for their own tickets home, and held until they can do so. He adds that the country technically can’t deport registered refugees without their permission, and many refugees refuse to return to the places from which they fled.

So it was with Yusuf, who says he was advised by a UNHCR representative not to sign his deportation order. As he waited in prison, he found himself housed with other foreigners of a similar fate.

“They don’t refer to foreigners in prison by their name,” he says. “Instead, they call out their verdict.” Prisoners are thus called by, for example, names such as “illegal entry.”

For many years he had no visitors, and when a representative from a nongovernmental organization came to see him he says he almost cried when he heard his name said aloud. But despite the harsh prison conditions, he rejected deportation to Iraq. Eventually he was taken by force, handcuffed on the plane to Baghdad.

He smuggled himself back into Lebanon this summer because he found no family in Iraq, and wants to “continue what I started here.” He lifts his pen. “I have my own weapon now.”

A burgeoning playwright and poet who learned to read and write in prison and occasionally quotes Nietzsche in conversation, Yusuf’s description of his ordeal is calm and eloquent: “Foreigners are forgotten in prison. We are in an abyss of oblivion.”

Yusuf the scribe might well appreciate the tragic absurdity of what happened to fellow Iraqi refugee Hasan Mohammad Hasan al-Shukri, who deems his experience with the justice system “something like a play.”

Shukri came to Lebanon in 2003 because he “feared for his life” at home. He had both a residency and a refugee permit when, following a dispute with his employer, he was accused of stealing LL24,000. He waited a year in prison before his trial, when a judge gave him a sentence of zero days for the crime.

Shukri spent four months in prison after the judge’s ruling. He refused deportation, and was told he was being detained “because of General Security procedures.” He also reports discrimination against foreigners “inside the prison, just like outside. Basic human rights are not respected.”

Saghieh and Habib agree that the courts have found their arguments persuasive – the judiciary has repeatedly ordered detainees immediately released. “But the practice hasn’t changed,” says Habib. “They law is very clear … Lebanon’s obligations are very clear, but at the same time [the government] has their own policies and considerations and they act without any supervision.”

Internal Security Forces Gendarmerie Commander General Salah Jibran told The Daily Star that “the ISF is never late in releasing prisoners who have finished their sentences. All foreign citizens or refugees are asked to be handed over to General Security upon serving their sentence. This is in accordance with the orders of the Prosecutor General.”

Jibran added that he can’t comment on General Security practices, but says detention beyond a sentence “might” be done to ensure that prisoners have the proper identification and security clearance. Representatives of General Security could not be reached for comment by The Daily Star.

According to Saghieh, General Security argues “we cannot leave [refugees] in Lebanon, we prefer to keep them detained.”

Yusuf doesn’t think the Lebanese authorities know he is back in the country, and he has registered as a refugee again. He’s hoping to be resettled somewhere else, but in the meantime admits “I am scared.”

Shukri is leaving Lebanon for good. He’s hoping to travel to Turkey in a week or two. Anywhere will be better than here, he says. “I want to go there and start over … You need to feel safe [where you live].”

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