BEIRUT: President Michel Sleiman’s decision to seek legal action against Internal Security Forces chief Major General Ashraf Rifi in a dispute over a third telecoms network caused a further split Tuesday in the Christian heartland, with Free Patriotic Movement leader MP Michel Aoun praising the measure, while Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea criticized it, hailing Rifi as the “most disciplined officer.
”Meanwhile, caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Future bloc lashed out at caretaker Telecommunications Minister Charbel Nahhas, accusing him of overstepping the Cabinet’s power.
Sleiman requested caretaker Justice Minister Ibrahim Najjar Monday to take judicial measures against Rifi for refusing to comply with caretaker Interior Minister Ziyad Baroud’s order to pull members of the ISF’s Information Branch from a building affiliated with the Telecommunications Ministry where the network is based.
Rifi refused to comment on Sleiman’s decision when The Daily Star reached him Tuesday.
Rifi met Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati Tuesday night. No details of their talks were immediately available.
Aoun, who has led a campaign against Rifi in the past few days, urging Sleiman to refer him to the judiciary for disobeying Baroud’s order, said: “The case of Rifi has taken its normal course through the law. We hope it will not take months while the issue of telecommunications remains complicated because there are big ambiguities in the issues under discussion.”
Speaking to reporters after chairing a weekly meeting of his Parliamentary Change and Reform bloc at his residence in Rabieh, Aoun said the Rifi case was related to his military performance. “What he did was contrary to laws and he must bear responsibility,” he said.
In sharp contrast, Geagea, from the rival March 14 camp and Aoun’s political opponent, criticized Sleiman’s decision, praising Rifi as the “most ethical and disciplined officer” whose ISF was immune to infiltration by Syria and Hezbollah.
He also said no one can remove Rifi from his current position.
Geagea, who is represented in the caretaker Cabinet by Najjar, questioned the reasons for referring Rifi to the judiciary.
“Is it because he does not send his mail abroad [to Syria] and his ISF does not take orders from outside the state? Or is it because the ISF is the only security apparatus that cannot be penetrated by Hezbollah in the interior, or it is not under the influence of the big sister Syria?” Geagea told a news conference at his residence in Maarab, north of Beirut.
Geagea also questioned reasons behind the uproar among politicians from the March 8 and March 14 camps over the telecoms incident, adding that the border conflict between Palestinians and the Israeli army last month, which resulted in the killing of 11 Palestinians, deserved greater attention.
“What is the reason for sparking this uproar at the Telecommunications Ministry? … Officials in Lebanon couldn’t find anything to handle except to refer Ashraf Rifi, the most ethical and disciplined officer, to the judiciary,” he said. He called on political factions to withdraw the Rifi issue from circulation.
Geagea praised the ISF’s achievements during Rifi’s term, including the arrest of dozens of Israeli spies and increasing the number of Christians in the ISF from 30 percent to 40 percent.
Rifi is currently at the center of a heated controversy that has sparked a war of words between the March 8 and March 14 camps following last week’s incident which saw members of the ISF’s Information Branch barring Nahhas and ministry technicians from entering the second floor of the building in the Adlieh neighborhood of Beirut which was housing the telecoms equipment.
The security forces prevented Nahhas from transferring equipment belonging to OGERO to the facilities of mtc touch. The stand-off was resolved Friday when the Lebanese Army took control of the telecoms building, including securing the second floor after members of the Information Branch vacated the place.
Meanwhile, Hariri’s Future bloc lambasted Nahhas over the incident at the telecoms building, accusing the caretaker minister of constantly bypassing the Cabinet’s authority.
“The incident fomented by caretaker Telecommunications Minister Charbel Nahhas through his repeated practices … that reflect his continuous tendency to overstep the Cabinet’s authority do not conform with the rules of the work of institutions and at the same time run contrary to law and norms,” said a statement issued after the bloc’s weekly meeting chaired by former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.
The statement recalled that Nahhas has frozen telecoms revenues, estimated at $1.6 billion, at the Central Bank, refusing to transfer it to the state treasury.
Referring to last week’s incident, the statement said: “[Nahhas] tried to seize equipment the Cabinet has put under the responsibility of the OGERO administration which has been entrusted with it. The minister wanted to use it individually without returning to the Cabinet as he should.”
Following the incident, the bloc stressed that resorting to the constitution and laws is the basis of the work of state institutions in Lebanon.
“The Cabinet’s decisions can be annulled only by decisions from the same institution,” the statement said, adding that no government official or employee should be above the law.
“The attempt to bypass the Cabinet’s authority will be confronted firmly and by stressing adherence to the rules of the Constitution and laws in force,” the statement said.
Lawmakers from the rival March 8 and March 14 camps clashed in Parliament Monday over the legality of the third GSM network and failed to agree on the formation of a parliamentary committee to investigate the dispute over the network.
Lebanon’s lucrative telecommunications sector has emerged as yet another bone of contention between the country’s feuding political parties. Lebanon, which has one of the world’s priciest telecoms sectors, has two private mobile service providers, Alfa and mtc touch.