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UMAM Documentation & Research


© 2018 UMAM D&R | by A.G.                        

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The Prison Theme as a Vehicle

for Social and Political Change

(1) See: Freedom House report “Freedom in the World 2017.”

(2) Note recent events in Saudi Arabia during which a corruption crackdown led to the detention of dozens of individuals at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh!

(3) Mina Aldroubi, “Syria opposition: Release of political prisoners would be 'game changer,” The National, November 29 2017.

(4) International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism, “The ISIS Prison System: Its Structure, Departmental Affiliations, Processes, Conditions, and Practices of Psychological and Physical Torture,” August 10, 2017.

(6) UMAM D&R is indeed aware of initiatives such as the “Geneva Call” to “promote respect by armed non-State actors (ANSAs) for international humanitarian norms in armed conflict and other situations of violence” and strives to remain abreast of them.

In recent decades, tremendous energy has been expended by human rights defenders, intellectuals, artists and many others who believe that it is in their best interests to see the MENA region meet higher standards for positive democratic governance, transparency and accountability. Yet, while recent events have propelled the topic of prison to crisis level, that ascendency has shed some light on ways to address the issue as whole.

The “Arab Spring” broadened the already raging debate over the rule of law, and by extension the underlying human rights conditions within MENA-region countries.

Since that “Spring” burst forward, we assert with confidence that the human rights records attained in most of the affected countries have not improved significantly. In many cases, in fact, it has worsened (1).


One effect of the Arab Spring is that today, the political and geographical integrity of some states in the MENA region are being called into question. Other states, fearing the effect of spillover, are becoming more concerned with their security (2). The number of actors asserting the right to behave as states has increased, and in parallel, reactions by established states have grown harsher. Because of this, prison-oriented issues are increasing in scope and complexity, while questions of accountability are becoming more ambiguous. Under these conditions, the basic concept of “prison” has grown in scope to include any type of unofficial detention center, including those not being administered by state actors complying with orders given by superiors who can be held accountable for their policies. In contemporary mainstream parlance, the notions of “prisoner,” “missing” and “enforced disappearance” have become almost synonymous.

In Syria, the whereabouts of up to 100,000 political prisoners is unknown, and the release of information about their fate has remained one of the key issues in the series of high-level negotiations between the Syrian government and opposition powers (3).

While the civil wars raging in Syria, Libya and Yemen have meant the number of those detained and abused by state actors has grown exponentially, the various non-state actors involved in these conflicts run detention centers of their own—where atrocities also occur. Accounts of the IS (Daesh/ISIS) detention facilities established throughout Iraq and Syria paint a horrific picture of mental and physical abuse on a massive scale (4).

To complicate the situation further, non-state prisons are not always the exclusive property of non-state actors. On June 22, 2017, the Associated Press published a report in which it asserts, “at least 18 clandestine lockups across southern Yemen [are] run by the United Arab Emirates or by Yemeni forces created and trained by the Gulf nation…. All are either hidden or off limits to Yemen’s government, which has been getting Emirati help in its civil war with rebels over the last two years.”(5) Unfortunately, this example of state actors using/outsourcing non-state actors to manage prisons and handle prisoners is not unique.

These new dynamics have shifted longstanding paradigms of the prison issue in the MENA region. The “collective imprisonment” of the Palestinian population was long considered the principal cause that needed to be addressed, and it inspired solidarity throughout the Arab world. However, an April 17, 2017 strike by 15,000 Palestinians being held in Israeli prisons failed to trigger a particularly significant show of support among the MENA public. The principal reason behind that reticence seems to be that the demands of the Palestinian prisoners—installation of public phone booths in all prisons, relaxation of visitation policies and improvements in medical services—seemed paltry compared to the vile human rights abuses that have continued to occur since the Arab Spring began. On social media sites, some Syrian activists even expressed envy of the treatment given to the Palestinian prisoners by Israeli authorities compared to the treatment many Syrians were receiving at the hands of their own government, a sentiment that would have been unheard of a few years previously. The conclusion to be drawn from this example is that while the focus may change from one MENA location to the next, and although imprisonment in MENA country A may attract attention while imprisonment in MENA country B may be studiously ignored because of other, more pressing exigencies, the prison theme remains central.

While the conflicts following the Arab Spring have spawned a league of private, non-state actors with different levels of organization and a variety of political affiliations, a common feature is the near impossibility of addressing them by applying conventional advocacy approaches. (6) Exacerbating these tenuous circumstances even further, when any of these private, non-state actors disappears as a result of defeat or self-destruction, the frightening nature of the prison-related abuses they committed remains inscribed on the bodies and in the minds of those who suffered such abuses firsthand. However, for the reasons mentioned above, those who perpetrate such atrocities simply cannot be held accountable from an institutional (state) perspective. As a result, the abuses they inflicted become imprinted permanently on the individual, the collective memory and within the psyche of the community that endured this maltreatment, the members of which can neither seek justice nor find a meaningful way to address these experiences in the current framework. Further, while increasing interest is being shown in understanding the roots of so-called Islamist violence, elemental to that quest are the prisons that incubate such violence both ideologically and in day-to-day experiences.

The second feature relates directly to the historical legacies of prison-related issues. Notably, our use of the word “legacies” is intentional, as it may refer to various national efforts in this field or to the legacy of pre-Arab Spring MENA, which ultimately precipitated regional turmoil and is spawning its own legacies. Advocacy approaches focused on specific instances of prison-related abuse often pay little heed to appreciating the important history of prison in the MENA region (as outlined above) and how the effect of these issues is ongoing. The conclusion to be drawn is that the central notion of prison not only influences life within the MENA region, but also shapes its future.

While local and international human rights advocates and activists remain at the forefront of efforts intended to address prison-related issues, we believe that it is becoming imperative that other approaches be devised and tested. For instance, bringing together actors and stakeholders from various professional backgrounds and disciplines, individuals directly involved in the efforts mentioned above, would help enrich the debate over such issues. Their joint efforts could produce new ideas intended to make societies and communities aware of and responsible for the frequently unlawful acts being committed behind prison walls—supposedly on their behalf. While the notion of prison in the MENA region certainly influences the value struggle (rule of law vs. dictatorship), impedes original thought (relying on security oriented solutions to social problems vs. using approaches that are more inclusive and comprehensive) and exacerbates tensions among people who do not share common philosophical ground (Islamists vs. seculars), laying bare its abuses across the board may help mitigate this widespread dependency and open a path toward a more humane future. While it seems prison-related issues in the MENA region are becoming more diverse than ever, detention, prison, torture and trauma have also emerged as shared experiences. Accordingly, instituting a calculated, comprehensive and interdisciplinary approach is among the only means available to address this painful matter.


Notably, our future platform is designed with that broad outcome in mind.