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Relatives let into Israelis' jail of death

Robert Fisk reports on Khiam prison, in southern Lebanon, where many inmates are held in underground cells
The gates of Israel's notorious Khiam jail in southern Lebanon have swung briefly open to allow a handful of Shia Muslim prisoners to see their families for the first time in 10 years. The Israeli decision to allow family visits - co-ordinated by the International Red Cross - came after the death of yet another Lebanese inmate, who had spent a decade in the prison without trial. Haitham Dabaja, 28, died in Marjayoun hospital - three miles from the prison inside Israel's occupation zone - although the authorities there have refused to comment.

In December two prisoners from Khiam - Salim Awada and Ali al-Goul - died in Beirut within days of their release. Another freed prisoner, Mustapha Ramadan, said 80 per cent of Khiam inmates suffered from cardiac and nervous disorders because of the humidity in their cells, many of which are underground. Mr Ramadan had just spent six years in detention and was released on grounds of "ill-health" - he was 85. This week's visitors included a girl of nine who had never seen her father. She was not allowed to embrace him but had to see him through a glass screen. About 260 Lebanese prisoners, including women and several youths of 14, are held at Khiam; Israel has hitherto refused to allow the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to visit the jail, whose inmates have given consistent accounts of electrical torture by Lebanese militiamen paid and armed by the Israelis.

It now seems likely the ICRC will at last be allowed to inspect the prison; the Israelis have agreed that 20 prisoners a week may be visited by their families. The change follows a growing - if tardy - realisation by Israel that its policy of isolating prisoners in harsh conditions in the hope of preventing further attacks on its occupation troops in southern Lebanon has failed.

Amnesty International has accused the Khiam authorities of using electricity to extract information from newly-arrived inmates. Some prisoners were captured during attacks on Israeli troops and their militia allies in the occupation zone; others are friends or relatives of men the Israelis believe to have been involved in the ``Islamic Resistance'' movement.

Yet UN officers in southern Lebanon say fewer prisoners are being taken by the Israelis after attacks on their occupation forces. Lebanese and Palestinian guerrillas believe Israeli and ``South Lebanon Army'' militiamen now routinely kill all attackers when they surrender. SLA men were seen shooting a prisoner near Shebaa last year, which prompted a protest to Israel by the United Nations commander in southern Lebanon. Last month seven members of the pro-Iranian Hizbollah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command - in the first open joint attack of its kind - were killed during an ambush on an Israeli convoy. A day later, it emerged that three more guerrillas in a second Hizbollah-PFLP-GC attack had all been killed in southern Lebanon.

Israel has in the past promised to release some or all of the Khiam prisoners in return for captured SLA men and its own missing air force navigator, Ron Arad, who was captured after a bombing raid on Sidon in 1986, but the Hizbollah - his presumed captors - have shown no interest in such a swap. The ICRC is now also allowed to visit all but two of the 70 Lebanese prisoners held inside Israel itself; they have not yet been given access to Sheikh Abdul Karim Obeid and Mustapha Dirani, both kidnapped by Israeli soldiers in Lebanon. Mr Dirani was Mr Arad's original captor.

Even before the Red Cross visits, details of life in Israeli jails have leaked out whenever inmates are freed. Lebanese prisoners have arrived in Beirut with extraordinary accounts of the conditions in which they have been held. In Ashkelon jail, for example, secular and Islamist prisoners from the PFLP, the Democratic Front, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Fatah - some in near-open conflict with each other in the occupied West Bank and Gaza - have formed a prisoner Revolutionary Committee and elected a joint leadership to negotiate with the Israelis for better conditions.

This system was recognised by the Israelis almost 10 years ago, when the head of the prison administration there, Rafi Suissa, negotiated with Palestinian inmates after a food strike. Freed prisoners say he was later sacked but that Palestinians at Ashkelon later heard that prisoners in other Israeli jails were allowed to watch three hours of television a day - and returned to their hunger strike until their own privileges were ``matched'' with those at other prisons.