Do we need prisons? How can we relate to jails and incarceration in times of authoritarian ruling, impunity, and lack of accountability together with transitional justice and uprisings calling for state reforms? While answering this question, the MENA Prison Forum (MPF) is interested in identifying the ‘we,’ in addition to the different impacts of prisons in the Middle East and North Africa. Prisons mean different things for the different actors the MPF has directly or indirectly engaged with over the previous three and a half years. While in principle, prisons as a method of punishment have proven to be limited in their successes in the MENA region, as is the case with other parts of the world, it is nonetheless important to think about what the existing carceral system means for activists and former prisoners who seek justice and enforcement of rules of law. If the prison abolition movement seeks to replace existing centers of detention with alternative modes of rehabilitation - a prospect that is not impossible to achieve - one should not dismiss the fact that prisons are also existential and timely solutions for pushing back against physical torture, psychological humiliation, and war crimes, to name a few atrocities.
A few years before the official launch of the MPF, its founders Monika Borgmann and Lokman Slim directed Tadmor, a film that traces the atrocities of one of the worst prisons in the world: the term “death camp” is not a stretch for the prison. The film joined other artistic projects, human rights reports, and academic writings that revealed the ugly face of the two consecutive regimes of Hafez Al-Assad and his son. Especially following the 2011 uprisings, voices of former Syrian, Lebanese, and Palestinian prisoners who spent long years of their lives in the jails of the Ba’ath ruling system have begun to counter the voices of terror that silenced their aspirations for justice. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians arrived in Europe; many of them chose not to live as passive refugees but to make use of existing institutions and legal systems to build a better future for coming generations. Among such procedures was the significant Koblenz Trial, which started in April 2020 and proved that two former Syrian intelligence officers committed several crimes against humanity.
While many of the Syrian activists, artists, and former prisoners the MPF interviewed stated that they wish the trial could have happened in Arabic and be based where they were tortured (i.e.in Syria), the conviction and sentencing to prison of these two men presented a some sort of hope not only to former prisoners and survivors of torture but also for the family members of who are still in jail and who died inside. Furthermore, the Koblenz Trial inspired the production of artistic work that tended to include actors who were imprisoned and tortured by the convicted men or other officers. While not all of these actors had previous experiences in similar projects, they were able to express their grievances and traumas, and to compensate for their absence from the courtroom in Koblenz. Beyond Syria, the effect of the Koblenz Trial can be seen in Egyptian activist Mohamed Sultan’s attempt to file a lawsuit before an American court against former Egyptian Prime Minister Hazem El-Beblawi accusing him of involvement in torture. Having moved to the US after his release from prison in Egypt, Sultan’s efforts unfortunately did not succeed. However, He immediately stated that “he was able to refile his case and continue the legal battle.”
Indeed, legal battles such as these in times of political crises are key to understanding the importance of prisons in building a more just world where perpetrators of crimes against humanity are punished for their crimes. While prisons in the MENA region punish, if not kill, who even ask for the basic rights and needs, they can also be appropriated to counter the culture of impunity that hinder processes of justice and accountability. Unlike the cases of Syrian and Egyptian activists, photojournalist Ali Arkady fuelled a domestic campaign in Iraq that put Omar Nizar, an Iraqi police lieutenant colonel, on trial. Nizar, who is accused of murder and torture crimes during the Mosul war and the 2019 October protests, was detained by Iraqi authorities after the release of photos, recordings, and videos that proved him guilty of committing human rights violations. Thanks to Arkady’s work and to End Impunity in Iraq (EII), the ongoing trial of Omar Nizar joins other similar regional efforts. Nearly one year after the assassination of MPF founder Lokman Slim in February 2021, the Lokman Slim Foundation (LSF) was established in Beirut with the aim of challenging the failure of judicial systems in Arab countries to hold perpetrators of political assassinations to account and likewise denies the families of the victims the right to an effective remedy.
Both LSF and EII are initiatives that are building upon earlier initiatives, movements, and attempts to center detentions of perpetrators of crimes against populations. Following the different phases of the so-called Arab Spring, revolutionaries and activists celebrated the detentions of former presidents, ministers, and statesmen in Sudan, Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia. While there is a lack of trust in the judicial systems of these countries, especially in the aftermath of the brutal military coups and counter-revolutionary policies that hindered genuine democratisation processes, such detentions reflected alternative, albeit short, redeeming political imaginaries. In this regard, this short article presents an opening of a longer debate that the MENA prison Forum seeks to share with researchers, activists, and artists. Are we speaking about the same prison when it comes to the contestation of current carceral systems administered by the authoritarian regimes of the MENA region, on one hand, and the endeavours to end impunity, on the other hand? What does abolish prisons mean for the healing of who existentially suffer from traumatic experiences as a result of their abuse, torture, and rape or of the death and the disappearance of their beloved ones, versus for those who are seeking to see justice and punitive measures applied to those who have caused immeasurable, large-scale violence of a population?