BEIRUT: The revelation that the suspected killer of British Embassy employee Rebecca Dykes had a criminal record has raised the question of how he was able to obtain a Lebanese taxi license. Following the disclosure Monday that the suspect – Tarek Houshieh – was contracted by the popular ride-hailing app, many have demanded to know why his record was not flagged.
“How was this man driving an Uber if he had committed crimes in the past? ... It makes you not trust Uber [or] other private cabs,” 28-year-old Rosette Stephan told The Daily Star Monday evening during a night out in Beirut’s Gemmayzeh, where Dykes was last seen.
According to Uber’s internal regulations in Lebanon, its registered drivers can only join if they have already acquired their driving permit, taxi license and their own commercially licensed vehicle. President of the Lebanese Taxi Syndicate Charles Abou Harb confirmed that Lebanese regulations stipulate that taxi licenses only be awarded to those with a clean criminal record, issued within a month.
When signing up to be an independent contractor with Uber – its drivers are technically not employees – prospective chauffeurs are required to submit a copy of their taxi license along with a clean criminal record valid within a month, according to Uber’s local policy.
When The Daily Star asked a current Uber driver Monday evening about the process, he said he had been required to submit all documents to the company. Requesting anonymity, he added that having a clean criminal record was also required to obtain a taxi license.
Beyond this, however, Uber does not run independent background checks on new drivers.
Uber Tuesday reiterated to The Daily Star what it said Monday: Houshieh had presented a clean criminal record with his application.
Despite multiple attempts to access a copy of the document, The Daily Star was unable to verify Uber’s claim.
Whether or not the record Houshieh presented was clean, what happened to Dykes raised further questions as to the level of oversight by Uber and the reliability of Lebanese standards and policies for issuing taxi licenses. In Houshieh’s case, in which Uber says it perfectly adhered to its own policy, one particular loophole in Lebanese law could have facilitated his registration.
“A criminal record can be cleared after a certain amount of years depending on a crime,” Dr. Charbel Aoun, an attorney in law specializing in employment and labor laws told The Daily Star.
“For example, murder can be cleared from your criminal record after 10 years. Less severe crimes may be erased after three years. So it is highly possible that he could have committed a crime years ago, but it would not show on his present record,” he added. “Either this is the case, or there is some incorrect information circulating.”
A Lebanese judicial source told AFP this week that the suspect had previously been arrested twice for alleged harassment and theft related to customers. Drug-related charges have also been connected to the suspect in media reports.
Dykes’ murder is not the first time Uber has been embroiled in such a case. In November, an anonymous Uber rider sued the company in California after a driver allegedly raped her in 2016. The driver was also found to have been charged with violent crimes before joining Uber.
The filing against the company accused it of an “inadequate and careless background checking process,” as it only searched the previous seven years of each driver’s history in the United States. Such negligence, the filing claimed, was a result of “profits over safety” ethics.
While a debate over whether or not Uber should be implementing independent background checks is warranted, it is clear that the issue could very well be prevalent among Lebanese taxi companies, the wide informal network of service taxis and buses.
Aoun said that under Lebanese labor laws, employees were not required to provide any type of documentation, whether it be a criminal record or a resume.
Elias Ghanem, founder and lawyer at the Ghanem Law Firm, corroborated this, saying: “It is not a mandatory condition to obtain a criminal record from employees [upon hiring] unless they’re working in official [governmental] departments.” – Additional reporting by Gasia Trtrian and Ghinwa Obeid