The Arab World’s Most Notorious Prisons

The Arab World’s Most Notorious Prisons

Aside from popular uprisings, Kingdoms and Republics across the Arab world all boast one thing in common: prisons that house callous recidivists and political dissidents. Here’s the rundown of some of the most notorious prisons you should know about.

Kadhimiya Prison, Iraq

The Arab World’s Most Notorious Prisons - Iraq

Abu Ghraib may have gained the world’s attention as a centre of human rights abuses, but another prison in Baghdad has earned itself a far more notorious reputation in the post-Saddam era. Kadhimiya Prison, situated in a northern suburb of the capital, was known as “a place where Iraqis went to disappear,” according to The New York Times, and things are no better now.

Between 2007 and 2012, Iraq has sentenced more people to death than any other country in the world, with the exception of Pakistan. All those inmates currently waiting on death row – some 1,400 people – will see their sentences carried out at one place: Kadhimiya. Things have become so bad that UN human rights chief Navi Pillay has described the situation at the prison as “like processing animals in a slaughterhouse.”

Tora Prison, Egypt

The Arab World’s Most Notorious Prisons - Tora Prison, Egypt

“If you want a serious interrogation,” explained former CIA agent Robert Baer, “you send a prisoner to Jordan. If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria. If you want someone to disappear – never to see them again – you send them to Egypt.” And that particular place in Egypt where people ‘disappear’ is Tora, a complex of six prisons located on the outskirts of Cairo.

A survey of inmates at Tora serves as a barometer for the current state of Egyptian politics at any given time. Since it was opened in 1928, the prison has held the enemies of whatever regime in place, from nationalists under King Farouk, to Islamists since the Nasser era. For some time, the prison was also home to former president Hosni Mubarak, his sons, and much of his former inner circle. Today, it hosts another former president: Muhammad Morsi.

Mubarak has complained of the poor conditions he experienced while at Tora prison, but he can hardly claim this comes as a shock to him. In 1997, under his rule, an Amnesty report warned that prisoners at Tora received “no more than once-weekly visits from doctors, who dispense only the most basic medicines.”

Jaw Prison, Bahrain

The Arab World’s Most Notorious Prisons - Jaw Prison, Bahrain

Relative to the size of its population, Bahrain locks up more people than any other country in the Arab world. For every 100,000 citizens, 275 are in jail. and prisoner numbers have swelled since popular protests broke out in the tiny island nation in 2011. In fact, according to estimates from the Bahraini Centre for Human Rights, the country has the highest number of political prisoners per capita anywhere in the world.

Most of these are held at Jaw Prison in Manama, where Amnesty has documented cases of torture. Jaw also houses juvenile prisoners alongside adults, with children as young as fifteen years of age detained in contravention of international treaties.

Roumieh Prison, Lebanon

The Arab World’s Most Notorious Prisons - LEBANON-PRISON-ROUMIEH

After a visit to Roumieh Prison in 2013, Marwan Charbel, Lebanon’s Interior Minister at the time criticized what he said was an “inhumane attitude towards prisoners.” “In my opinion,” he said, “these people should not be incarcerated in a place like this. As long as we do not have a decent, humane place, then they must be freed.” Conditions in Lebanese prisons are so bad, that Charbel has called for “either the death penalty or [the] immediate release of every prisoner.”

Roumieh houses some 3,000 prisoners – double its intended capacity – including the majority of Lebanon’s incarcerated Islamists. The prison has seen frequent protests from inmates over the appalling conditions. A 2011 riot left much of the prison’s infrastructure badly damaged, and the following year four inmates died when security forces put down a full-scale insurrection. When three Islamist detainees escaped in 2012, it allegedly took officials a month to realize they were gone.

Kenitra Prison, Morocco

The Arab World’s Most Notorious Prisons - MOROCCO-PRISON-ATTACKS-KENITRA

According to Morocco’s National Human Rights Council, which was appointed by King Mohammad VI to investigate prison conditions, the majority of the country’s inmates are subjected to “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.” Kenitra, located some 25 km north of the capital Rabat, is the kingdom’s largest jail and home to the majority of death row inmates.

According to The Advocates for Human Rights, a US-based NGO, conditions at Kenitra are “dire at best and life-threatening at worst.” New inmates allegedly go through a particularly unpleasant ‘welcome’ procedure, where guards strip them naked and force them to sit on a glass bottle. The Advocates also note that, because of Morocco’s moratorium on executions, Kenitra’s condemned inmates are liable to suffer what is known as ‘death row phenomenon’ – a condition of acute anxiety and uncertainty as to how and when one is going to die.

Tadmur Prison, Syria

The Arab World’s Most Notorious Prisons - Tadmur Prison, Syria

Known as the place where “the person who enters is lost, and the person who leaves is born.” Tadmur Prison has been the most notorious symbol of the Assad regime since high-level political prisoners were first sent there in 1979. According to Amnesty International, the prison is “synonymous with brutality, despair, and dehumanization.” The building itself “appears to have been designed to inflict the maximum suffering, humiliation, and fear on prisoners.”

The reports of systematic torture are too numerous to list, but the most notorious chapter in the prison’s history undoubtedly came in 1980, when, in the wake of an assassination attempt on then-president Hafez Al-Assad, Syrian troops were deployed to Tadmur and instructed to kill every prisoner in sight. The exact number of victims is unknown, but estimates range from 500 to over 2,000 prisoners killed.


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