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Lebanon preparing to grant thousands of prisoners amnesty amid coronavirus pandemic

Roughly 9,000 people are held in Lebanon's prisons and detention centres [AFP]

Date of publication: 21 April, 2020

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Lebanese lawmakers will vote on long-awaited legislation that could see the release of thousands of prisoners amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Lebanon's parliament is planning to vote on legislation this week that would see the release of thousands of prisoners arrested for non-violent crimes.

Two seperate laws will be introduced for a vote in a three-day parliamentary session beginning on Tuesday.

Legislation to grant pardons to non-violent convicts has long been called for by the families of those detained or wanted for misdemeanours and crimes such as drug use, cannabis production and celebratory gunfire.

The coronavirus pandemic has pushed lawmakers to act and ease overcrowding in Lebanon's prisons in order to avoid a devestating outbreak. Overcrowding is rife, with Lebanon's largest prison, Roumieh, running at 300 percent capacity.

"The Lebanese state has failed to solve the overcrowding problem for a long time. Prisoners are not being afforded their rights as citizens, and we can't let them pay a very high price for the failure of successive governments," MP Michel Moussa, a co-sponsor of one of the bills, told Al Jazeera. "This is a humanitarian issue."

'Political bribe'

Longtime supporters of such an amnesty contend that the timing of the bill has more to do with a crisis of confidence in the government rather than the Covid-19 outbreak.

The proposed legislation would mostly affect prisoners from impoverished areas of Lebanon such as Tripoli, Akkar and the Bekaa Valley, where most of the country's cannabis is grown illegally.

A 2006 file photo shows an overcrowded cell in Lebanon's Roumieh prison [AFP]

Residents of those areas consitute the traditional base of support for establishment parties who have been under pressure since mass protests broke out in October last year.

While lawmakers will be voting on the proposals this week, Moussa's amnesty bill was first submitted to parliament in late October. He is a member of the parliamentary bloc led by Speaker Nabih Berri.

"The political class needs the amnesty because it is reeling from the blows of the October 17 revolution. It's an attempted political bribe," the founder of an organisation that has advocated for an amnesty since 2004, told Al Jazeera.

"If they cared about humanitarian issues, they wouldn't have plundered this country and left the Lebanese to beg, go hungry and be forced into illegal [activities]," Hasan Mazloum said.

Who could be released?

The proposed legislation would affect Lebanon's roughly 9,000 detainees, as well as tens of thousands of people facing outstanding arrest warrants.

Both bills propose a reduction in all prison sentences by either a half or two-thirds, and the conversion of death sentences to hard labour for 25 years.

Only prisoners convicted of a small number of crimes would be eligible for release, with those involved in crimes such as murder, money laundering and human trafficking exempt.

One proposal, a bill forwarded by MP Bahia Hariri, also exempts environmental crimes and crimes covered by a 2014 domestic violence law.

Legal experts say both pieces of legislation are flawed in that they do not specifically name crimes eligible for pardons but rather limit the amnesty via exemptions.

Proponents of an amnesty believe deeper reform is required in order to prevent recidivism. 

"These prisoners will come out to a world of social crisis - no life, no work, no bread," Mazloum said. "They will come out and either join the protests on the streets or be forced to do something wrong again."

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