Lebanon: ISF fuel scandal casts suspicion on Justice Minister Rifi

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Ashraf Rifi, surrounded by members of the ISF, leaves the Mohammed al-Amin Mosque in Downtown Beirut after attending the funeral of assassinated former Finance Minister Mohammed Chatah in December 2013. Al-Akhbar/Haitham Moussawi

By: Hassan Illeik

Published Monday, December 15, 2014

In the past few days, information was leaked about fuel theft from the state-owned Rafik Hariri University Hospital. Most of the details about the issue are still unknown. Moreover, hundreds of millions of Lebanese liras were wasted or stolen at the General Directorate of the Internal Security Forces under its previous chief, Major General Ashraf Rifi. The investigation has included some of Rifi’s entourage, but he was quick to get his bodyguard off scot-free.

A lot has been said in the past two days about the scandal of supplying government hospitals and the General Directorate of the Internal Security Forces (ISF) with fuel. The suspect – Ali H., owner of al-Sahraa Petroleum Company – has been arrested. He used to sell fuel to the Rafik Hariri University Hospital and the national police and security forces.The man admitted during the interrogation conducted by the judicial police department in Dahiyeh, Beirut’s southern suburbs, that he was manipulating the meters and providing less fuel than what he was getting paid for. He talked about employees and officers helping him cheat in return for money that he “gifted” them.

So far, the issue sounds like your average corruption case. But the part that has to do with the Directorate General of the ISF suggests something bigger than your average corruption story. There are three levels to what is going on. The first is the decision by Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk and the current head of the ISF, Major General Ibrahim Basbous, to refer corruption cases to the Directorate of the Judiciary. The second has to do with the conduct of former ISF director general and current Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi and his partners in running the Directorate. The third has to do with the competition to succeed Basbous.

The story began a few weeks ago when it became evident in the Directorate General of the ISF that 877,995,000 Lebanese liras ($585,330) were paid to Captain Mohammed al-Rifai, Rifi’s personal bodyguard and confidant at both the ISF and the Justice Ministry.

It became evident that before retiring, Rifi issued a decision numbered 4355, asking the social services unit to loan Captain Rifai the aforementioned amount (over LL 877 million) for “providing green fuel.” The central administration unit had to repay this loan. When the issue was exposed, all concerned parties refused to repay the illegal loan after they figured out that not all the fuel which the loan paid for made it to the containers of the General Directorate of ISF. A lot of questions were raised over the money. Why wasn’t the amount paid directly to the supplier in accordance with a tender as stipulated by the law or in accordance with a consensual agreement? Why did Rifi involve his bodyguard in a financial deal that did not abide by due process procedures? Did all the money get to the supplier? Why didn’t the supplier provide the fuel requested by the General Directorate?

Quickly, Machnouk and Basbous decided to refer the case for investigation although they were keen on distancing Rifi from the scandal. During the investigation, another issue arose – that’s being closely examined – suggesting that the fuel supplier was paid the loan twice, once by the Finance Ministry and once by Rifai. Then another scandal emerged. Rifi paid the same supplier for 1,050,000 liters of gasoline that cost at the time about $1 million but ISF did not receive the fuel. According to a security official who is following up on the investigation, it appeared that Rifi left the gasoline (about 52,500 gasoline cans) at the company as a strategic provision for the ISF but when they asked the company owner for the fuel, it turned out that he had sold it.

Upon referring the case to the judiciary, the investigation was conducted at the Dahiyeh judicial police department under the supervision of the financial prosecutor, Judge Ali Ibrahim. The supplier, Ali H., was arrested during the course of the investigation. He confessed to cheating the General Directorate of the ISF and the Rafic Hariri University Hospital by giving them less fuel and gasoline than he was paid for. He talked about people who collaborated with him at these governmental institutions. He claimed that at the ISF, he gave Captain Rifai a “gift” of LL 170 million ($113,333) which the latter denied in his testimony before the investigators. Ali H. also said that he paid huge sums of money to Lieutenant Colonel Osama Badran who, in turn, denied the suspect’s claims.

According to security officials involved in the case, ministerial, judicial and security figures are trying to thwart the investigation and limit the suspicion to Ali H.’s circle. There is an effort to clear Rifai in order to distance Rifi’s team from accusations of mismanagement. Clearing Rifai strengthens Badran’s position. The case proceeded on the basis that there is no evidence to prove that any of the officers were bribed by the supplier based on the rule that the testimony of the suspect is weaker than that of the officer. As such, the financial prosecutor ordered the release of Rifai upon submitting proof of his residence and of Badran pending further investigation, meaning both men were released. The public prosecutor sees Rifai as not responsible for what happened. If he is held accountable, it will be for administrative responsibility, which requires holding Rifai’s superiors accountable. Badran is responsible for receiving the fuel in his capacity as head of the administrative office at the vehicles department. That is why he was released “pending further investigation.”

The company owner is the only one still in custody based on a judicial ruling. Badran’s superiors at the General Directorate of the ISF decided to keep him in custody (which they have the right to do without a judicial permission. It is called behavioral detention). They also transferred him for “disciplinary” reasons from his post to serve in the third mobile regiment. But no one will dare touch Rifai or question Justice Minister Rifi, who is considered in Lebanon – by convention and not by law – the head of the public prosecution investigating the case. Security officials stress that what happened was the result of Rifi’s mismanagement of ISF for eight years during which he acted as though he was staying in his post forever without supervision of his work or accountability. The sources give another example of Rifi’s mismanagement of the Directorate’s finances. Every once in a while, Rifi would order millions of Lebanese pounds in payments to the officers working in his office. A lieutenant colonel from the ISF Information Branch, called A.Kh., worked in Rifi’s office upon his request. The Directorate’s records document hundreds of millions of Lebanese pounds given to the aforementioned lieutenant colonel under the “social assistance” payment provision.

Security officials say there is an item in the budget that allows the director general to pay money in the form of social assistance to officers, non-commissioned personnel, civilians working at the General Directorate of ISF and retirees. But Rifi made payments to the officer assisting him under the pretext of “placing it in his custody to be used as needed without having to deal with administrative red tape.” The sources ask: “Even if we assume good intentions, why would Rifi put himself under suspicion?” Other sources point out that mismanagement affected nearly all divisions of the institution, stressing that Rifi is not the only one responsible. His partners in managing the Directorate weren’t much better. Take for example sickness assistance. There is currently an investigation of a group of officers and non-commissioned personnel suspected of forming a kind of gang to steal the institution’s funds in the form of fraudulent sickness allowances totaling billions of Lebanese pounds, according to investigation leaks.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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