Lebanese Interior Ministry creates its own NGO under guise of prison reform

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Lebanon's infamous Roumieh Prison. (Photo: Haitham Moussawi)

By: Bassam Alkantar

Published Wednesday, September 3, 2014

This is not the first time a governmental authority forms a non-governmental organization (NGO) to be able to receive grants and spend aid money outside state control. However, the Lebanese Prisons Reform Association (LPRA), founded, dissolved, and re-established by Interior Minister Nouhad al-Machnouk, is being touted as the "sole agent" for reforming prisons in Lebanon. It will begin its work with a two billion Lebanese Lira ($1.3 million) grant from the Municipality of Beirut.

The Lebanese ministry charged with supervising the establishment of NGOs decided to create one for its own purposes. It is the fastest way to receive foreign grants and aid without prior or subsequent control.

The total declared budget of NGOs in Lebanon is almost $300 million a year. This amount of money is spent without any accountability. Thus, the idea of creating this type of organization seems tempting, even for the ministries themselves. In mid-March of this year, Interior Minister Nouhad al-Machnouk signed on the founding declaration (#448) for the Lebanese Prisons Reform Association (LPRA).

For the first time in the history of the Lebanese Republic, the Official Gazette published the declaration of association for an NGO, which includes in its membership legal persons from the state authorities. The first article of the decision clearly indicated that the founders were "the Ministry of Interior and Municipalities represented by the Minister, the General Secretariat of the Council of Ministers represented by the Secretary General, the General Directorate for the Internal Security Forces represented by the General Director, and the General Directorate for General Security represented by the General Director."

This is basically a governmental committee made up of a minister and four general directors, who decided to go back to the Ottoman-era Law of Associations to establish an NGO to work on rehabilitating the prison system.

There have been previous cases involving governmental authorities who established NGOs to receive grants and aid to be spent on projects related to the main mandate of the concerned ministries or general directorates. A few years ago, former Interior Minister Ziad Baroud endorsed the creation of Akhdar Dayem, which included him and several politicians and businessmen. This NGO aimed to collect donations for the purchase of firefighting equipment and helicopters. It managed to secure millions of dollars and purchased the Sikorsky helicopters, which were donated to the Defense Ministry as the only state authority with a technical staff capable of running and flying helicopters.

Back then, Minister Baroud justified the step by saying it was meant to sidestep administrative bureaucracy and the lack of funds to purchase equipment, which were urgently needed to fight actual fires. At a later time, Akhdar Dayem presented an account of its work and the mechanism used for the helicopter bidding process. However, the helicopters have been out of service for a few years, since funds needed for their maintenance had not been secured.

A legal authority (who preferred to remain anonymous) described the difference between the two different organizations. Akhdar Dayem was made up of non-governmental individuals, adhering to the law and constitution. However, Machnouk's organization is illegal, since it was established by the public administration of the central government, whose legal personality is linked to the state. The only reason why a government body needs to create a non-governmental organization would be to circumvent the law and receive state funds indirectly outside any financial control.

However, this violation failed to stir public or official objections, with the sole exception of an article by Ghida Frangieh, a lawyer, published in issue 15 of Legal Agenda [an independent legal watchdog]. "Did the founders of the association, three of whom belonged to the same ministry, aim to 'unite their information or efforts in a permanent manner and for a non-profit aim' as stipulated in the Law of Associations?" Frangieh asked. "Isn't it aberrant for directorates of the same ministry to establish an association to rehabilitate prisons? Doesn't this point to an attempt by these public authorities to evade legal state provisions and create a parallel administration, beyond any controls?"

The Legal Agenda's questions remained unanswered, until Minister Machnouk issued Decision #1256, lpublished in the Official Gazette (Issue 29, October 7, 2014), dissolving the so-called Lebanese Prisons Reform Association, per "the request of its board of directors according to procedures." The same issue, however, contained a surprise. On the same page, the Official Gazette published a new declaration of association (#1258), announcing the creation of an NGO by the same name in Arabic and English, but with a different list of founders, which included Minister Machnouk, along with François Bassil (head of the bankers association) and the Chamber of Commerce Industry and Agriculture in Beirut and Mount Lebanon, represented by its chairman Mohammed Choukair, who will be the legal representative of the association before the government. The role of Bassil and Choukair in prison reform is unclear, but they seem to be providing the association a non-governmental cover.

The new declaration of association elaborated its aims to work on the rehabilitation of Lebanese prisons and the improvement of their conditions, providing health, educational, and social guidance for prisoners. These goals had been adopted by dozens of local associations, which had been working on prison reform for decades. But maybe we should wait a few months to see if LPRA will monopolize such functions or if other organizations would be allowed to continue with their activities, which need the approval of the minister/competitor.

According to the announcement, LPRA also aims to "amend laws related to prisons, inmates, and security matters, working to develop the Lebanese punitive system to conform with international agreements against torture." The problem here is related to the phrase "security matters." How could the Directorate of Political Affairs in the Interior Ministry allow this in the goals of an NGO?

The third stated aim of LPRA – probably the most important for the founders – is to provide "Lebanese and foreign technical expertise to prepare studies and implement projects needed by prisons and the directorates of the Ministry of Interior and Municipalities." This would allow LPRA to expand its activities from prisons to the ministry's administration, even if they were not specifically concerned with running prisons. This item could also be a reference to Lebanon's commitments to the UN Human Right Council in 2010, under the National Plan for Human Rights, which included transferring prison administration from the Interior Ministry to the Ministry of Justice. The transfer of prison administration from the Interior Ministry to the Justice Ministry is a common reform measure undertaken by the majority of countries concerned about their human rights record. Lebanese associations had been calling for an end to the illegal confinement of non-citizens in the General Security's holding cells under the bridge next to the Justice Palace, without respect for legal provisions governing prisons and detention centers, including those allowing detainees to see a lawyer.

LPRA, formed by the minister in charge of municipalities, received a gift from Beirut Municipality, whose board agreed on a grant of two billion Lebanese Liras ($1.32 million).

The law of associations does not mandate the Finance Ministry to audit NGOs, except for taxes on salaries. NGOs are only required to provide a budget and statement of final accounts – which are often fake – at the end of the first month of each year, which are added to its file in a moldy closet in the Interior Ministry.

Follow Bassan Kantar: http://about.me/bassam.kantar

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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