Lebanon: the largest prison grapples with alarming covid-19 outbreak

Lebanon’s largest prison on Thursday was grappling with an alarming coronavirus outbreak, 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 warned.

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 (AP).

The outbreak in the prison east of Beirut, which is 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 country’s 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 inside the prison compound. He said the vast majority of detainees had minor or no symptoms, and 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 convictions, 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 prison and posted on social media showed dozens of detainees packed in a hall, none of them wearing masks, with one saying: “We are dying inside the prison. There is no food or medicine. There is no protection here.”

Another video showed four men sleeping on mattresses, some of them coughing, with the video’s narrator claiming that they were infected with COVID-19. The videos could not be independently verified, but claimed to be from inside Roumieh.