A possible attempted assassination of March 14 MP Boutros Harb last Thursday has intensified a dispute between rival government institutions about evidence that many believe could hold the key to identifying the perpetrators.
The Telecommunications Ministry, headed by Nicolas Sehnaoui of the March 8-aligned Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), has been accused by various March 14 figures of withholding crucial telecom data from the Internal Security Forces (ISF), which are perceived as closer to March 14. While Sehnaoui has argued on the one hand that he is forbidden by law to transfer the data to the ISF without the consent of a special judicial committee—something legal experts dispute—he has also remarked that he “does not trust” the ISF. Hezbollah—a key ally of the FPM—has opposed handing over the data on the grounds that it would expose the country to greater risk of an Israeli attack.
For their part, March 14 figures have alleged that Sehnaoui and Hezbollah are involved in a “conspiracy” tantamount to “participating in” the assassination attempt on Harb, as well as that on Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea in April.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Najib Mikati sought on Thursday to downplay the dispute, claiming the ISF was “satisfied with the level of information” it received from the ministry.
Harb responded to the prime minister’s comments, calling them untrue and adding that “The concerned security agency was not provided with any new information.” Moreover, Harb accused “Hezbollah and its allies” of bearing the historical and legal responsibility for disrupting the work of the judicial body and of failing to support the security forces.
In remarks published Thursday, Harb said, “They do not want to hand over the IMSI [International Mobile Subscriber Identity] data, because it would help reveal the assailants; they do not want the truth to be revealed.” With the government’s decision, Harb said in remarks published by French daily L’Orient le Jour, Lebanon has moved from being a fiscal haven to a crime haven.
Marwan Hamadeh, who is both a former telecom minister and a survivor of a 2004 assassination attempt, believes that Sehnaoui’s withholding of the data is an effort to mask his allies’ culpability for the crimes in question. “I have witnessed such serious mishandling of the telecom data file during the past few years that I’ve come to the conclusion that some within the Lebanese state are accomplices of the assassins,” he told NOW.
“When I was minister of telecom, I had to overrule a former minister known for his pro-[FPM leader Michel] Aoun and pro-Hezbollah tendencies who had prevented any disclosure of data to the international investigation committee [for the 2005 assassination of PM Rafik Hariri]. Since the Hezbollah takeover of the Telecom Ministry, they have gone on a double offensive: one, to prevent further investigation of previous murders; and two, to render the security agencies totally blind about new ones.”
Moreover, Hamadeh rejects Sehnaoui’s argument that the law prevents him from transferring the data. “This is completely wrong. The law he’s referring to [Law 99/140] relates to wire-tapping conversations. It’s only with the new government of 2011 that this interpretation has been introduced, which has nothing to do with the law but rather consolidates Hezbollah’s upper hand on this sector.”
Lawyer and constitutional expert Marwan Sakr also disputes Sehnaoui’s claim, although he notes that the law is somewhat vague. “Law 99/140 is a bit of a grey area, but my understanding is that it deals exclusively with wire-tapping. I don’t think it applies to the data the ISF is requesting in this case, which is only information about which numbers called which numbers, and where those numbers were located at the times of the calls. The basic idea behind 99/140 is to protect personal privacy from security officers listening to what callers are saying, which is not the same thing. So I don’t think they have any jurisdiction to say no to a request for this data.”
Legality aside, questions have been raised about the actual investigative significance of the data. PM Mikati, for one, was reported to be skeptical as to its value in determining the culprits’ identities.
Hamadeh, however, told NOW that such doubts are misguided. “Everywhere in the world, telephone data is a central store of evidence for any investigation. It’s the first thing an investigator looks at.”