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I Spent Six Months Inside Lebanon's Most Notorious Prison

Roumieh is not somewhere you want to find yourself. The facility regularly holds up to 5,500 inmates, including some of the country's most high-profile criminals—among them, former Israeli agents and Salafists linked with insurrections against the...
January 2, 2014, 12:35pm

"Khodr", a Syrian activist who spent six months in Lebanon's Roumieh prison

Roumieh, Lebanon's most notorious prison, is not somewhere you want to find yourself. The facility regularly holds up to 5,500 inmates, including some of the country's most high-profile criminals—among them, former Israeli agents and Salafists linked with insurrections against the Lebanese state. The prison is yet to meet the minimum standards stipulated by the UN. Those who officiate the prison have also faced numerous accusations of corruption; high-security prisoners have escaped, reportedly without authorities even realizing, and prison guards and doctors have been charged with trafficking drugs inside its walls.

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"Khodr" (a pseudonym) is a pro-Syrian revolution activist who fled to Lebanon in 2011 to avoid military conscription. Arriving in Beirut after bribing Syrian border authorities with 2,000 Syrian lira, he continued his activism, networking with members of the Free Syrian Army to facilitate the safe-passage of foreign journalists seeking to report from within Syria.

In March of 2013 he was picked up by the intelligence branch of the Lebanese Internal Security Forces, who had been watching him for a while. Forced into the back of a 4x4 with a hood over his face, Khodr was interrogated for three days before standing trial at a military court. Accused of colluding with the Syrian opposition and thereby "assaulting" the security of the Lebanese state, he was sent to Roumieh and served six months of his sentence, before an Anglican priest helped him with his release.

Now, with a deportation order against him and with his passport still being held by authorities, Khodr remains in Lebanon illegally but is unable to leave. I sat down with him to talk about his experience in the prison.

A short film showing conditions inside Roumieh

VICE: Hi, Khodr. What were the reasons for your detention?
Khodr: It was related to my activities and connections with members of the Free Syrian Army, particularly from al-Zabadani [a city in southwestern Syria, close to the Lebanese border], who were probably under surveillance. They were buying weapons from Palestinian militias in Ain el-Hilweh [the Palestinian refugee camp in the southern city of Saida] and others, including Shia groups who supported Assad but wanted the money.

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And they thought you were involved?
They suspected me of being part of Free Syrian Army logistics, not a fighter. I denied any connection to the people they mentioned in my interrogation, but they found their numbers and names in my phone, as well as on my Facebook and Skype. In the military court they accused me of obtaining a counterfeit visa and activities assaulting the security of the Lebanese state. At that moment, I realized the seriousness of the situation.

What were the first couple of weeks like inside Roumieh?
It was really hard to adapt. I suddenly found myself in this incredibly shady place, surrounded by hardened criminals and drug abuse. I’d never been in a place like that. I was very depressed and scared.

How rampant was the drug abuse?
I’d say 90 percent, or higher, of the inmates were using. It stretched from prescription drugs, like benzocaine and Tramol, to hashish, cocaine, and heroin. Everything is available: benzocaine being the cheapest, with heroin and cocaine the most expensive. There is no chance of rehabilitation. I remember one inmate saying to me, "The only thing they have imprisoned here is my dick."

Some people had [homosexual] relationships, but they wouldn’t show it. Late at night or early in the morning, when most people were asleep or high, they would go to the bathroom. Two guys would pay the janitor a couple grams of hashish in order not to let anyone in for ten to 15 minutes. They wouldn’t be abused or ostracised, but if the sharwishe found out then they would be beaten up. I wasn’t aware of rape.

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What's a "sharwishe"?
In every hall of the prison there is a head sharwishe. He's a prisoner but also kind of like a mafia boss or strong man. In my hall the sharwishe was a former officer in the Lebanese police force who had been imprisoned for forming an armed group and exploiting his position to sell and distribute drugs. The sharwishe controlled the sale of everything: food and drinks, cleaning products, and drugs. He—not the prison officers—was in charge of maintaining order in the hall. The prison authorities were involved in the trade through the sharwishe. Whenever drugs were brought into the prison they would tell all the prisoners to remain in their respective halls.

The profits that the sharwishe got from the sale of drugs were divided between him, sharwishes in other halls, and the prison director. Let’s say $1,000 of drugs were sold, then the prison director would take a cut of $300. Often the prison director would come and sit with the sharwishes in their rooms and drink coffee and talk before our eyes. The entire system is deeply corrupt. It is in the interest of the prison authorities to have drugs in the prison because then the prisoners will be lazy and incapacitated. They won’t revolt for their rights and object to things they think are in bad condition that could be improved.

How did the economy of the prison work? For example, how did people buy drugs?
No material money is allowed in the prison. Everything worked through a system of transferring phone credit to the account of the sellers who worked for the sharwishe. People would contact friends and relatives on the outside, who would then send them credit to use inside the prison. For example, if you wanted to buy two pills of benzocaine, this would cost $10, Coca-Cola would cost $3 and two small “capsules” of hashish would cost $10. Anyone can get a phone if they have the money; it costs around $120 for a simple Nokia with a sim card. After a month inside I asked my cousin to transfer the amount to a seller so I could get a phone and sim card. In block Mahkumeen of the prison, where members of Fatah al-Islam [linked to the 2007 Nahr el-Bared conflict] and other Islamist groups like Jund al-Islam are held, they have computers. Not just any computers, but Macs. They have powerful backers outside the prison and the government fears retribution if their demands aren't met.

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There was a system of real estate in the hall that worked in the same way. In my hall there were between 80 to 90 of us. Those with money would buy desirable "property" at the edges of the hall because it was cleaner there and there was more opportunity for privacy. They would construct cardboard partitions so they would have their own little rooms. Five people would pay together, between $300 to $400, and they would pay other inmates as servants to clean the room. The people without money, mainly Syrians and Palestinians, would sleep together in the middle of the hall. It was very cramped.

Where did the sharwishe live?
The sharwishe had his own room, which is separate from the rest. He had his own TV, fridge, a proper bed with a mattress and clean sheets. His room was shining. He had at least five bodyguards who were always with him or standing outside his room making sure everything was under control.

How did you adapt and cope with prison life?
The law in the prison hall was based around paying a weekly fee of one pack of cigarettes to the sharwishe in order to avoid having to work for him, say, for example, as a cleaner. These packets were distributed between the sharwishe, the head janitor, the doorman, and the guy in charge of food. Sometimes, even if the Syrians and Palestinians paid a pack of cigarettes, they would be forced to work anyway. This happened to me at the beginning.

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After a while, I started working with a charity association in the prison, teaching computer lessons and English and [reading and writing in] Arabic, and I worked in their library. I talked with the head of the association and said I could help manage some of their programs on the condition they gave me shampoo, cleaning products, coffee, and cigarettes, both for myself and which I could sell on. Through working with the association I also made connections with powerful prisoners and the priest who helped me get out of the prison.

Who did you socialize with?
Relationships in the prison are mostly based on mutual interest, for example between people taking drugs and those selling drugs. If it goes wrong it can easily lead to violence. People would make knives from everything, from bits of wood to door handles that they would sharpen against the wall into shanks. Small fights often broke out; bigger fights between rival groups were less common. The sharwishe was in charge of trying to restore order. The prison authorities did not intervene.

I socialised with some people I met through my work with the association. These included people who had spied for Israel. They were educated and intelligent and also quite powerful. At the beginning I didn’t take any drugs, but after three months I became really depressed and desperate. I started to smoke hash sometimes with the Israeli agents and sometimes take benzedrine or Tramol.

Were there any times you felt particularly threatened?
I was in a block composed of Shia and Maronite Christians. Nearly all of the Shia inmates supported Hezbollah and the Amal movement [a political party associated with Hezbollah and Lebanon's Shia community]. When Hezbollah became strongly involved militarily in Syria over the summer, particularly during the battle for al-Qusayr, they would threaten and taunt the Syrian inmates. I would just say, "Bashar al-Assad is our president. We support him." I couldn’t say I supported the revolution; there would have been trouble if I had. I was careful not to criticise the system itself. The sharwishe had his feelers. You can’t speak against the system.

How did you feel when you were released?
When they interrogated me they made me feel I was a criminal. I thought I would be inside for years. I had tried so many types of wasta [Arabic term for "connections"] through Hezbollah and other political parties and politicians in Lebanon, activists with powerful connections and lawyers, but nothing worked out. Somehow this Anglican priest was able to facilitate my release through the payment of a one million Lebanese lira fine. When they were releasing me, I didn’t believe it at first. I said to myself that, when I pass through this final gate, I will believe. I felt like I had wings and I could fly.

But now I cannot do anything. I have an obligatory deportation against me, but all my documents—in particular my passport—remain confiscated. If I am stopped at any time at a checkpoint I'm scared they could put me back in prison for being in the country illegally. I try not to walk around; I always take taxis. I am literally stuck.