Middle East

Virus hits Lebanese prison as inmates jockey for release

BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanon’s largest prison grappled with an alarming coronavirus outbreak on Thursday as many inmates refused to take preventative measures or get tested under the impression that catching the virus could speed up their release as part of a rumored general amnesty, the head of the country’s doctors union said.

Over 200 of the 3,000 detainees at Roumieh Prison have tested positive in recent days, Sharaf Abu Sharaf, president of Lebanese Order of Physicians, told The Associated Press.

The outbreak in the prison east of Beirut, notorious for overcrowding, comes as Lebanon is witnessing a sharp increase in coronavirus cases and deaths. Some detainees’ families have urged the state to issue amnesty to certain detainees to reduce the possibility of the virus sweeping through the prison population.

“Overcrowding is the prison’s main problem,” Abu Sharaf said, adding that the 223 detainees who tested positive were being quarantined in a separate building in the prison compound. He said the vast majority of detainees had minor or no symptoms while a small number had been taken to a nearby hospital for treatment.

Some observers say the spread of the virus in Lebanon is being used to pressure the government to implement a general amnesty for prisoners.

Hundreds have been jailed for years without trial, while others who’ve served their prison terms but don’t have enough money to pay fines are still being held. Prisoners locked up for serious cases like killing members of Lebanon’s security forces or drug dealing are not likely to be included in any amnesty.

A video apparently leaked from inside Roumieh and posted on social media shows dozens of detainees packed in a hall, none wearing masks, with one saying: “We are dying inside the prison. There is no food or medicine. There is no protection here.”

Another video shows four men sleeping on mattresses, some coughing, with the video’s narrator claiming they were infected with COVID-19. The videos, purportedly from inside Roumieh, could not be independently verified.

Abu Sharaf said that since the virus spread to Lebanon earlier this year, prisoners have been supplied with masks and sanitizers to protect themselves.

Outgoing Health Minister Hamad Hassan told reporters that the ministry and prison officials are coordinating to guarantee the safety and medical care of all prisoners. In April, prisoners rioted in a jail in northern Lebanon, demanding they be released amid fears of the virus.

Outgoing Justice Minister Marie-Claude Najm said 2,717 detainees have been released from March 1 through Sept. 1 from prisons and detention centers in Lebanon as a result of expediting their cases. She added that convicted prisoners can fill out applications asking for a special amnesty and that many detainees held without trial have been released.

Lebanon, a nation of 5 million, has recorded a sharp increase in virus cases in recent weeks, with a daily record of 685 new cases on Thursday. The country has so far reported more than 26,700 cases, including 263 deaths.

The rise began after a lockdown was eased and the country’s only international airport was reopened in early July. Then, the surge continued after the massive Aug. 4 explosion in Beirut’s port that killed 192 people, injured at least 6,500 and devastated much of the city. The blast also overwhelmed Beirut’s hospitals and badly damaged two that had a key role in handling virus cases.

Dr. Firas Abiad, a leader in the fight against the coronavirus, said that lately, eight percent of all tests from among the general population are coming back positive.

FILE – This August 18, 2009 file photo, shows Roumieh Prison, in the Beirut suburb of Roumieh, Lebanon. The head of the country’s doctors union warned Thursday, September 17, 2020 that Roumieh, Lebanon’s largest prison, is witnessing an alarming spread of coronavirus cases with more than 200 detainees testing positive recently and more could get the infection as many of them are not abiding by preventive measures. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein, File)

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