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ROUMIYEH, Lebanon (Reuters) - Cigarette smoke wafts through a hall in Lebanon's biggest jail where an all-male jury is arguing over whether an accused murderer should be hanged.
The 12 men, all prisoners themselves, strive for a unanimous verdict. Tempers rise, insults flow, blows are threatened.
Then someone forgets his lines. Laughter erupts. They start again. Occasionally the frustration leads to a real quarrel until the firm voice of director Zeina Daccache restores order.
In jeans and a black sweater, she castigates, coaxes and cajoles her novice actors, who sulk, talk back and then perform with renewed gusto, just like their counterparts in any theater.
Some tell their own stories in monologues. Hawilo acts out a comical prison visit with his mother who unwittingly got him convicted of dealing drugs instead of just possession. "Good news son, I told the judge you never smoke hashish, you only sell it!" Hawilo mimics her saying, before he pretends to faint.
For a few hours each week, these forgotten men taste a world beyond the bars of Roumiyeh, a crowded prison near Beirut that houses Islamist militants as well as 4,000 ordinary criminals.
Since she launched her drama therapy project in February, Daccache has won the respect and affection of the convicts, who call her "Abu Ali," reckoning her to be as tough as any man.
Anwar, a tall, shaven-headed Iraqi in combat pants and boots, who is serving a 15-year sentence for murder, said she was "like a sister" who had unlocked a door.
"It's a kind of freedom for all of us," he said. "It's given me courage to be with others. Before, it was as if we were all wearing masks, but I have discovered a new person in myself.
"I was very nervous, jumping on any mistakes, I was impatient and dangerous, but now I take my time, count to 10."
Anwar, who has not seen his family in Baghdad for 11 years, said the theater project, in which he plays the jury foreman, had channeled his anger and saved him from fatal despair.
"I was going to commit suicide in the new year, but I have changed my mind," he said. "Before I felt like a criminal, like garbage, but now I feel respected, even by the prison officers.
Daccache's venture, sponsored by a local human rights group, funded by the European Union and managed by the Ministry of State for Administrative Reform, is unusual in the Arab world.
"I thought: Lebanon? No, it's mission impossible," said the 30-year-old actress and drama therapist, who was inspired by visiting a similar project in an Italian prison in 2002.
It took her a year to get the money and another to win the go-ahead from wary authorities, but the prisoners are now set to stage their play for guests at the jail in February and March.
Prison authorities posted no guards inside the makeshift theater where Daccache rehearsed her 45 charges.
"She's like a window of hope for us," said Hussein, a lank-haired graphic designer serving a five-year drug term who plays guitar in the play's interludes of music and song. "Zeina will become a legend. She really did something for all of us."
The boisterous group, chosen from an initial 150 volunteers, is mostly Lebanese, but also includes Egyptians, Palestinians, Syrians and an Iraqi, plus two Nigerians and a Bangladeshi.
Daccache adapted the play "12 Angry Men" by U.S. author Reginald Rose, for local conditions and her own purposes. She has two sets of jurors to give more prisoners a chance to act.
The death penalty, at the heart of the drama made into a film in 1957 by director Sidney Lumet, is still on the books in Lebanon. Executions are rare, however. The last three were in 2004.
Several of Daccache's actors are convicted murderers -- one of the "jurors," a soft-spoken middle-aged Egyptian, has spent 14 years in Lebanon on death row.
In Roumiyeh, scene of a prison riot in April, the guards have noticed a change among the drama group.
"We have seen more motivation. Prisoners feel someone is paying attention to them," said the supervisor of the wing that contains the theater. "It has lowered the pressure 70 percent."
Daccache has enlisted a psychologist to do independent tests on members of her troupe and a control group of other prisoners. "We haven't finished the study, but we already see a huge difference between where they were and where they are," she said.
The project takes up all her time. Two rehearsals a week have become five. So why sacrifice those extra hours, and then more to haggle with donors, bureaucrats and prison officials?
"I am happiest when I am inside the prison," Daccache says with a grin. "There you are dealing with really authentic people. If a guy is angry, he is really angry. Outside we fake so many things.
"Here they don't, maybe because they already lost everything they are ready to restart from zero. We go easy on ourselves, but they don't. They want to prove something, there is something they want to say, and this is the beautiful thing."
Editing by Andrew Dobbie