Beirut, Lebanon – A fiery prison riot broke out in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli on Tuesday, a day after security forces thwarted a potential escape attempt that inmates’ relatives said was tied to fears over the spread of the new coronavirus.
The riot at Tripoli’s Qoubbeh Prison left at least four inmates wounded when security forces fired rubber bullets, according to activists with contacts inside the facility. Local media reported a “number of injuries”.
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Videos from inside the prison shared by the activists with Al Jazeera appeared to show two men with injuries consistent with rubber bullets – one man on his leg, another man on his face.
A spokesperson for Lebanon‘s Internal Security Forces did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the number of injured.
Two videos reviewed by Al Jazeera showed dozens of men crowded into a large hallway in the prison, a few holding large knives, as fires burned.
They chanted for a general amnesty that has been promised by establishment politicians for many years but has repeatedly faced stumbling blocks.
Among those who have advocated to be included in an amnesty bill are people arrested or wanted on charges of committing petty crimes, drug crimes and “extremism”.
Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s government has committed to endorsing such a bill, though it is unclear who would be included.
Escape attempt ‘over coronavirus’
The large riot came fewer than 24 hours after security forces discovered a tunnel several metres in length during an operation at Zahle Prison in eastern Bekaa Valley.
A security source said security forces on Monday evening raided a section of the prison housing a large number of inmates after learning that “prisoners were attempting to escape”.
Relatives of inmates at the Zahle Prison said the prisoners’ attempt was tied to fears that the coronavirus would spread rapidly inside the overcrowded detention facility.
“They are scared about the coronavirus issue, they are scared it will spread,” the relative of an inmate at Zahle Prison told Al Jazeera, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.
Lebanon, with a population of about six million, has registered a total of 548 cases to date. Nineteen people have died, and 62 have recovered, according to the information ministry.
Officials say no cases of coronavirus have been found among prisoners.
The relative said they had last been in contact with the inmate on Monday as security forces were about to launch the raid. “He said, ‘they’re coming in now, and we don’t know when we’ll be able to talk again.’ I haven’t heard anything since then,” the relative said.
Many inmates at Lebanese prisons use smuggled mobile phones to speak to relatives.
Video taken inside the prison appeared to show a narrow hole was dug underneath the prison floor. A basket full of reddish-brown earth is illuminated by a light hung on one side of the makeshift tunnel.
The security source said an altercation took place between security forces and inmates during the operation.
The inmate’s relative said that several inmates had been wounded. One officer had stabbed by an inmate but was in stable condition, according to a representative of a committee of families and notables who have long been pushing for the general amnesty, known as the “Amnesty Committee”.
Up to a third of prisoners could be released
Since mid-March, inmates at Lebanese prisons have organised a number of protests, some of which have turned into riots as the coronavirus outbreak worsened in the country.
Inmates have demanded to be released from detention centres that are operating at more than double their capacity.
Officials say they are seeking to secure the early release of up to a third of the country’s roughly 9,000 detainees, specifically those with fewer than six months left in their sentences.
Judges and security forces have also been advised to make new arrests only when serious crimes are committed.
When possible, judges have held interrogations via popular messaging app WhatsApp or other video-calling services, and a top judge said France would provide Lebanon with electronic ankle bracelets which could be used to track inmates released early via GPS.
Interior Minister Mohammed Fehmi said on Sunday that 559 detainees had so far been released early from prisons and jails.
But as time goes on, the situation in prisons is becoming increasingly unstable.