Lebanon News

Telecoms row becomes legal battle

BEIRUT: President Michel Sleiman demanded Monday legal action against Internal Security Forces (ISF) chief Major General Ashraf Rifi in connection with a dispute over a third telecoms network by referring the case to the Justice Ministry.

Meanwhile, lawmakers from the rival March 8 and March 14 camps clashed in Parliament over the legality of the third GMS network as well as the prerogatives of the Telecommunications Ministry and the state-run OGERO company.

Sleiman demanded judicial measures be taken 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.

“The presidency requests [caretaker] Justice Minister Ibrahim Najjar to take the judicial measures as provided for by laws and regulations in force following the refusal of the ISF’s director general to carry out a request by the interior minister that the second floor of the Telecommunications Ministry building be vacated,” Sleiman’s office said in statement.

The decision came after Sleiman was reported to be “furious” over Rifi’s refusal to carry out the president’s order to evacuate members of the ISF’s Information Branch from the telecoms building. Baroud, who is loyal to Sleiman, has resigned in protest at Rifi’s refusal to obey his order.

The Daily Star tried several times Monday to reach Rifi for comment on Sleiman’s decision but he was unavailable. Rifi told The Daily Star Sunday that he acted according to law to protect the state property.

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 involving equipment for the third GSM network at a building affiliated with the Telecommunications Ministry. The incident underlined the sharp split between the rival factions over the role of security agencies in the country.

Thursday’s incident saw members of the ISF’s Information Branch barring caretaker Telecommunications Minister Charbel Nahhas and ministry technicians from entering the second floor housing the telecoms equipment at the building in the Adlieh neighborhood of Beirut. Security forces stopped 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, lawmakers from the rival March 8 and March 14 camps clashed 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.

“We suggested the formation of a parliamentary committee to investigate what happened, but we disagreed over who would appoint a member from Ogero. We did not take a decision to form this committee because we disagreed on this issue,” Hezbollah’s MP Hassan Fadlallah, chairman of the parliamentary Media and Telecommunications Committee, told reporters after chairing the committee’s meeting that was also attended by Nahhas and lawmakers from the March 8 and March 14 camps.

“We wanted to know the truth behind this third network. Is it operational and for whom and who is responsible for it?” Fadlallah asked.

“It seems that there are many decisions made by the Parliament in 2007; one says that the Chinese network belongs to the Telecoms Ministry while another says it belongs to OGERO,” Fadlallah said.

Nahhas insisted during the meeting that naming the OGERO representative was the prerogative of the ministry, while March 14 MPs said the appointment was the responsibility of the head of OGERO, Abdul-Monem Youssef.

The committee had primarily met to discuss Thursday’s incident at the telecoms building. However, March 8 and March 14 MPs also engaged in a heated debate over the legality of using the equipment, which was donated by the Chinese government.

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Nahhas said that the main issue was the presence of armed forces on the floor where the equipment was stored, without the knowledge or approval of the telecoms or interior ministries. He added that no decision had been made regarding the use of the Chinese network and that the equipment was still being tested to see if it worked.

The meeting highlighted the main issue between the political factions, which is whether OGERO has the right to act independently of the Telecommunications Ministry.

During the meeting, March 8 MPs accused OGERO of violating the law by acting independently and questioned the motives behind its actions. In contrast, March 14 MPs wanted to take legal action against Nahhas for violating the decision of the Cabinet which had placed OGERO in control of the donated equipment.

Future bloc MP Ahmad Fatfat accused Nahhas of violating the law and committing “breaches.”

“There are many violations committed by the minister [Nahhas] which we explained in the committee. The formation of an investigation committee was proposed by our parliamentary team,” Fatfat said after the meeting.

Kataeb (Phalange) Party MP Sami Gemayel told reporters after walking out of the committee’s meeting: “I regret to say that the atmosphere in Parliament does not befit the MPs. What is happening in the Lebanese state as a whole and all its constitutional institutions does not befit this country and the Lebanese people.”

Following the meeting, Future bloc MP Ammar Houri displayed documents which showed the Parliament’s 2007 decision that OGERO had become an independent institution, with the Telecommunications Ministry acting as a monitor.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 31, 2011, on page 1.

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