ROUMIEH, Lebanon: Caretaker Interior Minister Marwan Charbel announced Thursday the beginning of efforts to boost municipal police forces and provide enhanced security across the country.
Separately, Charbel and caretaker Deputy Prime Minister Samir Moqbel said they would wait for the results of an ongoing investigation into the contracting company responsible for Roumieh Prison’s Block D before pointing fingers over its decrepit condition.
Charbel made the municipal police announcement during an event that gathered several hundred representatives from Lebanon’s 800-plus municipalities. He said local councils could help preserve security in the country by cooperating with the government.
“Lebanon is being targeted in these fragile times by car bombs and improvised explosive devices meant to carry out assassinations, so we are working on being fully prepared to face such threats by adopting preventive measures,” Charbel said.
He hailed the role played by the municipalities of Beirut’s southern suburbs, including the municipality of Haret Hreik, as well as that of Tripoli in the north, both of which were targeted by deadly car bombs last month.
The plan Charbel presented comprised several measures, such as bolstering municipality police and installing cameras on residential streets and neighborhoods.
Charbel also called for certain municipalities to coordinate with each other, particularly those unable to afford to employ sufficient police forces, by creating joint police forces.
He said the Cabinet, prior to its resignation, had given its consent for local police forces to be beefed up, and that the ministry was facilitating the relevant paperwork. He did not provide any details on the funding requirements for the plan.
Joint patrols between municipality police forces and the Internal Security Forces are also part of the plan, as well as boosting protection of places of worship and schools.
Later in the day, Charbel accompanied Moqbel on a tour of Roumieh Prison “renovated” Block D, but its filthy floors, broken windows and rancid lavatories told another story.
Both ministers remained diplomatic as to who was to blame, but did not hold back from criticizing the work done to the bloc.
“We are not here to criticize or take revenge. A committee has been appointed by the Cabinet to study and evaluate the renovation and its costs,” Moqbel said. “But unfortunately, I have to be honest: The work that has been done is below par. How [is a prisoner] supposed to be interrogated in this kind of room, or go into a building with no glass [on the windows] and doors that don’t close properly?”
Both ministers said they would hold off pointing fingers until the result of the committee’s evaluation was out.
“Who is responsible? ... A week from now we will know [who it is] and why the work was done in this manner,” Moqbel said.
Last month Financial Prosecutor Judge Ali Ibrahim commissioned the Office of Financial Crime and Money Laundering to question the executive contractor for the Roumieh renovation, after Charbel expressed outrage at the decrepit conditions of the prison block despite the project nearing its deadline.
“I inspected this prison [bloc] and realized I couldn’t keep a prisoner there,” he said. “I want what the prisoner wants. I want the prisoner to enter his cell and find hot water, a clean bathroom, a window with glass panes which can open, electricity, a light bulb fixed to a ceiling and not dangling from it.”
He said the renovations completed thus far did not prioritize basic needs, with surveillance cameras set up throughout the prison but no running water or proper beds in cells.
“The contractor didn’t include window panes in the study, but included four ambulances costing $500,000. How can ambulances be prioritized before window panes?” Charbel asked.
He was reluctant to lay blame but said the renovation process was complicated by the involvement of the Higher Relief Committee, which donated $5 million to the project, and the Public Works Ministry, who gave $7.6 million. The total cost of the renovations, which began in January, was around $12 million, according to the caretaker interior minister.
“I’m not saying that theft has been taking place; I’m saying there has been a waste of $12 million,” Charbel said. “Imagine today, after [$12 million], prisoners would still need to use a bucket instead of the toilet.”
In direct contrast to Block D, Moqbel and Charbel lauded the new courtroom facing Roumieh’s main building. They said the expansive room, which cost about $2 million, has been ready for a year, and will be used for the trial of dozens of Islamists who have been detained since the Army’s battle with Fatah al-Islam in 2007. – With additional reporting by Rayane Abou Jaoude