BEIRUT: Retired Maj. Gen. Ashraf Rifi handed over Saturday the helm of the Internal Security Forces to Brig. Gen. Roger Salem “with a clear conscience,” recounting his achievements during the eight years he was the head of the country’s police force.
“I depart today with a clear conscience and leave the institution in safe hands,” Rifi said during a graduation service for specialized police officers that preceded the handover ceremony at the ISF headquarters in the Beirut district of Ashrafieh.
“Handing over the Internal Security Forces to Brig. Gen. Roger Salem is part of implementing the law and respecting the fact that no one should remain [in their post] forever,” he added.
Hours after the graduation service, the ISF held the handover ceremony where Rifi gave Salem the ISF flag.
Rifi's term as the head of the ISF ends April 1 when he turns 59, the institution's maximum working age, while Salem will reach his retirement age in only three months. Custom dictates that a Sunni hold the top post at the ISF, but Salem is a Greek Orthodox.
After Salem’s retirement, the post is expected to go to Brig. Gen. Ibrahim Basbous, a Sunni considered close to the Future Movement.
During the ceremony, Rifi praised Salem, saying it was comforting to hand over his post to someone he knows as well as he knows himself.
Rifi’s term was one of the main factors that prompted Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati to announce his resignation on March 22. The majority of his Cabinet from the Hezbollah-led March 8 group opposed extending the former police chief’s term given that they view him as being close to their rivals in the Future Movement.
Earlier this week, the March 14 delegation handed Speaker Nabih Berri a petition signed by 69 MPs including Mikati to retroactively extend Rifi’s term allowing him to stay until he is 62 to forestall an inevitable void in the key security position.
The proposal, which calls on Berri to convene an urgent legislation session to vote on the issue, would also extend Army head Gen. Jean Kahwagi’s tenure until he turns 63. The military commander turns 60 this year, the maximum age for his post.
During his speech, Rifi reminisced over the historically critical time when he was handed the top job at the security agency.
“Eight years ago, I took over the helm of this agency while it was suffering from low number and a lack of preparedness,” he said. “Since then Lebanon has faced a series of wrongdoings, starting with the attempted assassination of [March 14] MP Marwan Hamadeh followed by the crime of the era against Rafik Hariri, which marked the beginning of major changes in Lebanon, until the last crime that targeted Brig. Gen. Wisam al-Hasan” he said.
Hasan, head of the ISF Information Branch, was assassinated in October 2012 after a car bomb exploded in Ashrafieh.
“On April 30, 2005, I was handed the institution following the withdrawal of the Syrian army and we were facing great challenges, and I was aware of the dangers but we did not fret. We expected that some of us would become martyrs, but we did not hesitate,” Rifi added.
Under his leadership, Rifi said, the agency outlawed torture and incorporated technological advancements into the work of the police force as well as allowing women the right to enlist.
“We were able to uncover 33 Israeli spying networks in Lebanon,” he said.
Acting Police Chief Brig. Gen. Roger Salem said a few words during the graduation ceremony where he vowed to preserve the institution.
“It is my destiny to receive this institution in these difficult times,” Salem said.
“I will work on preserving the dignity of the Internal Security Forces and strengthen the trust between its members, and keep at a distance whatever can tarnish its reputation, until I hand it over to whoever the executive power chooses,” he added.