Lebanon News

Cellular-blocking devices remain idle in Roumieh

Photo shows corridor inside Roumieh prison. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)

BEIRUT: Mobile phone jamming devices installed last year in Roumieh's notorious prison have so far been unused, enabling Islamist detainees to freely communicate with the outside world and reportedly plot attacks with jihadists.

The existence of such devices, aimed at disrupting cellular phone and internet use by prisoners, was reported by As-Safir Wednesday.

Experts at the Telecommunications Ministry told The Daily Star the devices were installed in mid 2013, but have not been used since.

A security source said the devices, which can also block 3G mobile networks, have been idle for technical reasons.

During a testing period following installation, residents living in the nearby vicinity of Lebanon’s largest prison complained that the devices had obstructed their mobile phones from connecting to a service provider.

The residents reported the issue to prison authorities who deactivated the devices in an attempt to reset them and limit their coverage to few meters around the prison, the source said.

“Experts are trying to find a way to limit the coverage of these devices to the surrounding parameters of the prison,” the source, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Daily Star.

A report published by the local daily said Islamist inmates in Roumieh’s Block B were using 3G networks on their phones to coordinate terrorist activities and recruit fighters for the Nusra Front, a radical rebel group fighting in Syria.

Authorities are unable to wiretap emails and other content published online in jihadist-related forums, where the detainees coordinate with their accomplices outside prison, the report, quoting security officials, said.

Hundreds of Islamist prisoners have been detained without trial since 2007. The men were apprehended for allegedly fighting against the Army in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared in north Lebanon and belonging to Al-Qaeda-linked Fatah al-Islam.

The inmates, who have instigated several riots inside Roumieh prison, reportedly enjoy some degree of freedom inside their cells.

Several media reports, including Wednesday’s article in As-Safir, linked some inmates to recent car bombings in Beirut’s southern suburbs that have been claimed by Al-Qaeda-linked Syrian and local rebel groups.

According to the source, the Islamist inmates were recently joined by other detainees suspected of taking part in last year’s clashes between the Army and armed supporters of Salafist Sheikh Ahmad Assir in the coastal city of Sidon.

The source said the aim of installing the mobile phone jamming devices was to foil attempts made by detainees to escape, after several inmates fled the prison in the past few years.

Caretaker Interior Minister Marwan Charbel, who could not be reached for comment, told As-Safir that the prosecution’s office allowed prisoners to own cell phones, making the Justice Ministry the responsible party.

Caretaker Justice Minister Shakib Qortbawi told The Daily Star that security measures, including the installation of the devices, were part of Charbel's prerogative.





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