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Farce and tragedy of Lebanon's jailed poet

Robert Fisk on the secret and squalid imprisonment of a harmless man
When the Lebanese poet Safwan Haidar walked out of his Beirut prison last week, his first request stunned the Lebanese journalists who had secured his freedom.

"He asked for a chair," said Elias Khoury of An Nahar newspaper. "Can you believe it? For four years, he didn't have a chair. He had sat on the floor. He asked for newspapers, because he hadn't read a newspaper for five years - they're not allowed in prison. He asked for a pen and paper to write - some years ago, one of the guards tore up a manuscript of his poems. And he asked for oranges - because he said he hadn't eaten an orange in five years."

Lebanon is a land of oranges. But the real scandal of Safwan Haidar's imprisonment is that everyone - his family, his prison guards, the authorities which imprisoned him and the journalists who eventually arranged his release - agree that the middle-aged poet has committed not a single crime and never harmed a soul. The only reason for locking up Mr Haidar, who holds a PhD in Islamic studies from Berlin University and has translated the works of Gunther Grass, Rilke and Brecht into Arabic, is that he is a schizophrenic and because someone claimed that he might be "a danger to society".

The poet's story is at once both farcical and tragic. In 1983 he was sent to a state psychiatric institution in Beirut, built by Quakers in the 19th century. When the hospital closed he was incarcerated in a "secure" wing of the building, where he spent at least three years forgotten by society. Many of the mental patients around him had been convicted of violent crime.

"Safwan is a very good poet and a very well-known one, but he has been ill - he began to have hallucinations when he was in Berlin. But he should never have been locked up," Mr Khoury said.

"Apparently, a Jaafari Shia [religious] court said that he was dangerous and this was accepted by the Attorney-General. He was locked up and in very bad conditions. He was often beaten - his nurses behaved like policemen. Then he was taken to Roumieh prison - which holds 3,000 prisoners although it was only built for 800."

Mr Khoury and his journalistic colleagues wondered why they had not heard from Mr Haidar for several years and assumed he must have died, until one of the reporters heard of his plight from an Armenian doctor. "He said that those who were too poor or had no family to help them had been sent to Roumieh," Mr Khoury says. "That's how we found him."

The day after An Nahar published the story of Safwan Haidar's secret imprisonment, the Lebanese assistant minister of public health telephoned Mr Khoury and arranged for his release to a psychiatric hospital, where his journalistic and intellectual admirers are paying for his treatment in a private ward.

"In my 20 years of writing, this is the first time an article has had an effect in this country," Mr Khoury says. "When he was released to us, everyone was crying Safwan, us, even the prison guards. But how come a good man like this can be treated in such a way, just because he is ill?"