Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Iraqi refugees drive in Romania with illegal Lebanese licenses

Interior ministry moves to halt fraud
By Andrew Wander
Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: More than 100 Iraqi refugees who have fled to Romania since the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq were issued with Lebanese driving licenses despite having never visited the country or taken a driving test, The Daily Star has learned. Documents handed to a road- safety watchdog show the driving licenses were issued illegally to refugees in Romania. The Iraqis paid Lebanese civil servants $500 to $600 for the documents, instead of paying more for proper driving lessons and legal licenses in Romania.

The fraud occurred in the first quarter of 2007. Senior government figures, including the prime minister, were made aware of the issue in November last year, but it appears no action was taken until two months ago, when new Interior Minister Ziyad Baroud handed the case to judicial authorities.

"We are aware of this case and we have submitted it to the prosecutor," Baroud told The Daily Star on Monday.

"Two months ago I took the necessary steps. Nine civil servants have been stopped from working and are subject to prosecution," the minister said.

Baroud said the that government had been in contact with Romanian authorities through the Foreign Ministry to deal with the issue.

Romania's ambassador to Lebanon, Daniel Tanase, said that he had not been informed of the matter.

"I'm not aware of this. If this is the case, then I will contact both the Romanian and Lebanese authorities," he said.

"The controls in Romania are very strict. It's difficult to drive without a license, which is why they were forced to get one elsewhere," he added.

According to UN estimates, at the time the licenses were issued Romania had taken in about 450 Iraqi refugees, meaning about a quarter of the Iraqi refugee population in the country could have been driving on illegal Lebanese licenses.

Driving licenses were not issued in Iraq for months after the 2003 invasion because US forces closed Saddam Hussein's government infrastructure and set up their own administration. Iraqi refugees were forced to take driving tests in other countries, but because the Lebanese license is recognized around the world, some simply "bought" one from criminals cooperating with rogue civil servants working in the licensing agency.

The corruption came to light when copies of the licenses were handed to the Youth Association for Social Awareness (YASA), a Beirut-based health and safety watchdog that has led a campaign against the "selling" of driving documents.The group decided to inform the relevant authorities rather than make the information public, said YASA founder Ziad Akl.

"YASA decided not to go to the media with the information at the time," he said. "Instead, in the presence of MP Pierre Dakkashe, we presented the evidence to Premier [Fouad] Siniora and Interior Minister [at the time] Hassan Sabaa. Our question now is what has happened about this?"

After months of apparent inaction, Baroud insisted that the case was now being dealt with and judicial proceedings were ongoing. "I did what needed to be done," he said.

But campaigners say that many more driving documents have been issued illegally in Lebanon. Akl said corrupt officials took advantage of confusion following the 2006 war to sell "tens of thousands" of driving licenses in late 2006 and early 2007, and warned that other countries may also have drivers using illegally issued Lebanese licenses.

"This is an international mafia," he said, referring to the perpetrators. "We are relying on Interior Minister Ziyad Baroud to deal with this situation. I don't have evidence it is still happening, but I also don't feel confident that it has stopped."

Information about the case came to light just weeks after YASA warned that many Lebanese were bribing their way onto the road rather than taking a proper driving test. YASA is hoping a new law will be adopted next year which will help stamp out corruption in Lebanon's driving-licensing authorities.

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