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UMAM Documentation & Research


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Toward a MENA Prison Forum

December 17, 2018




The first workshop of the MENA Prison Forum took place in Berlin from 28-30 November 2018, bringing together experts from a wide range of disciplines, each with their own angle on carceral concerns. Psychologists, lawyers, human rights activists, film-makers, academics, and journalists from Iraq to Morocco, from Syria to Saudi Arabia, many with their own experiences in prisons across the region, gathered to explore the prison as a central tool in the political toolbox of governments and non-state actors across the region, to strategize on potential solutions, and to lay out priorities for the months and years ahead. 


During the first two days, the workshop heard from panelists on different aspects of the prison phenomenon across the region: prisons as sites of reform in Saudi Arabia, experiences with transitional justice in Morocco and Tunisia, the role of former detainees’ associations in pressing for justice in Syria and Lebanon, and more. These case studies prompted fruitful discussions on issues with region-wide relevance, such as the grey area between political and criminal incarceration; the outsourcing of carceral duties to non-state actors; the role of art and culture in building popular support for reform, and the effect on prisoners’ family members and the wider community. 

After two days of intense discussions on the place of the prison in the culture, history and politics of the Arab region, the workshop began the process of self-definition for the forum – who are we, and what do we want to do? Is the forum concerned only with those imprisoned on political grounds, or with all prisoners? If the former, where do those imprisoned for political activities that we oppose (such as radical Islamists) fit in? If the latter, how can we uphold the rights of all those affected while not losing sight of the unique position of the political prisoner? How can we complement and strengthen the important work done by human rights organizations, researchers and others, without duplicating it? 

Such questions will require more debate and reflection than one meeting can provide, but important progress was made toward common ground – without forgetting that differences of opinion and perspective are enriching, and give energy and impetus to an interdisciplinary initiative.  Addressing an issue as huge and multifaceted as the prison in the Arab world will be a long-term endeavor, with interventions on many levels required. Through this will be an evolving process, some practical priorities and tangible next steps were outlined for 2019: research and documentation to better understand the role of the prison in the region; artistic and cultural production to introduce prison issues to new audiences; developing the MPF website to become a go-to resource for all matters prison-related in the MENA region; and deepening the collaboration established through the first MPF workshop. 

On the third day, the group was joined by several journalists, government representatives, and civil society from Germany, to exchange on the previous days’ discussions. The workshop rounded up with a visit to the former Stasi prison in east Berlin where critics of the communist government were jailed, and which now serves as a museum and memorial to the political repression of the period. The visit was bittersweet, both a reminder of the fear and suffering of political imprisonment, and a message of hope for the MENA region that such sites can transform from places of abuse into places of memorialization and respect for the victims. 

Watch out for more news and next steps coming soon…

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