#RealityCheck 7: Tackling Violent Extremism In- and Outside Lebanese Prisons

14 August 2020   ·   Chantal Azzam

In this #RealityCheck, Chantal Azzam at Search for Common Ground gives an insight into her work tackling violent extremism in Lebanese prisons. COVID-19 has fuelled existing challenges both inside the prison system and outside: with a large numbers of recently released detainees, external support should focus on post-custodial reintegration and rehabilitation.

The below was written before the explosion which devastated Beirut on August 4 and the political, social, economic, and security crises it has triggered. As this piece is published, Chantal Azzam and the rest of the Search team in Lebanon are working to re-adapt their programmes to the new context. The several and multidimensional crises which have rocked Lebanon over recent years create many challenges for the work of organisations like Search, but have also proved the essential need for such efforts which bring people together to tackle shared problems, as well as the resilience of the Lebanese people and organisations that serve them.

What does your work on crisis prevention and peacebuilding normally look like? What kind of project were you working on before Corona?

I work with an organisation called Search for Common Ground (Search). Since 1982, Search has been transforming the way the world deals with conflict, moving away from adversarial approaches and toward cooperative solutions. We operate in almost 40 countries across Africa, Central and South-East Asia, and the Middle East and collaborate with governments, communities, civil society, media, and the private sector.

One of the issues Search tackles is violent extremism. To do that, we identify constructive means of dissuading people from expressing their beliefs or frustrations violently. We promote tolerance, bolster young people’s resistance to recruitment, and work with penal systems to equip both prison officials and people convicted of violent extremism with non-violent conflict resolution skills.

Since September 2019, I have been managing a project aimed at reducing the risk of violent extremism in Lebanese prisons. This project is a partnership between Search and the Restart Centre for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture (Restart) and is funded by the German Federal Foreign Office.

Prior to COVID-19, the project had already experienced some challenges. For example, since October 17, 2019, Lebanon has been the stage of mass anti-government demonstrations, motivated by popular demands to change the country’s power-sharing system, address the exponentially growing economic crisis, and reclaim access to democratic rights. The protests directly impacted the project’s implementation timeline: massive road closures across the country led Search and Restart offices to close for several days; the political crisis reduced the availability of government institutions.

As an organisation, we operate in very challenging circumstances globally and we have built up the internal capacities and partnerships to be able to adapt to shocks and revise our approach. Despite the protests, we pursued the start-up of the project – recruiting key staff, building partnerships, and initiating the baseline and needs assessment study.

How has Corona influenced your work? What challenges and new opportunities are you currently facing?

The outbreak of COVID-19 presented a new layer of challenges and opportunities for the project. Our access to prisons has been delicate from the start due to the political crisis and COVID-19 has further delayed the lengthy process. Therefore, in the first few weeks of COVID-19, the project team and I engaged in reflection and reprogramming of the project. The main objective was to reduce the risks for project implementation and find alternative solutions that do not divert us from our main objective. We also sought to understand how and if we can implement our activities online: given the restrictions and uncertainty imposed by COVID-19, we have been contingency planning for project activities for 2020 to be held virtually, building on our strong experience in holding training and workshops online.

One major adaptation is the expansion of the project to include recently released detainees with activities adapted for non-custodial reintegration settings. Given the challenging conditions of the prisons and the hardships faced after release, former inmates are at risk of receding back to violent extremism. This pivot will replicate the activities originally planned to take place in prisons, including capacity building, dialogue, vocational training and local initiatives, now targeted at recently released inmates. Meanwhile, we will continue to advocate for access to prisons and inmates.

We have also discussed with the authorities how the project can respond to COVID-19 in prisons. Preliminary discussions have shown that there are needs for materials like Personal Protective Equipment, detergents, medical kits, and some furniture items for prisons in the North of the country, the target area for the project. We believe that supporting the provision of these materials urgently will help us strengthen our relationship with relevant government bodies in ways that would improve the overall effectiveness of the project.

What kind of external support do you think is needed now? What can external actors like Germany do in your view?

The prison system in Lebanon remains highly vulnerable to COVID-19. Prison health services lack sufficient capacities, facilities are ill-equipped and suffer from poor hygiene. Prisons also suffer from extreme and endemic overcrowding. To date, prisons remain inaccessible to NGOs which is leading to further deterioration of prison conditions. This is both a major immediate – but preventable – public health risk and a security challenge: fear of COVID-19 has contributed to rioting; poor prison conditions are major contributing factors to radicalisation.

External support is very much needed now to prevent this suffering and the worst of the potential consequences. This should include material and technical assistance for implementing the Interior Ministry’s framework on reducing overcrowding and for medical isolation facilities such as negative pressure rooms for inmate patients and holding facilities to allow for 14-day quarantining of new and temporary detainees. International assistance can also build on health responses as a bridge to peace by supporting the healthy collaborative relations between authorities, civil society, and inmates that are needed to effectively tackle COVID-19 and that can form the basis for collaborative problem-solving on wider social issues.

We also need increased support for post-custodial reintegration and rehabilitation efforts such as those Search has pivoted towards recently. Until now, international support has focused on efforts within prisons, which are important but not sufficient. COVID-19 has increased this need: as in other countries, Lebanon has released a large number of detainees in a positive step to reduce prison overcrowding. However, so many former-inmates returning to their communities at once increases the need for post-custodial efforts such as awareness raising initiatives to combat stigma and prejudices and transition programmes that encourage close partnerships between families, civil society, and other community actors whose trust, engagement, and support are essential for successful rehabilitation and reintegration.

Naher Osten & Nordafrika COVID-19 Extremismus

Chantal Azzam

Chantal Azzam is the project manager for Search for Common Ground’s project “Reducing the Risk of Radicalisation and Violent Extremism in Lebanese Prisons”. @SFCG_Lebanon