Lebanon Federal Bank staff hostage drama in Hamra ends with support for perpetrator

An armed man held up a branch and demanded his savings, drawing popular backing and sparking heated protests against the country's banking sector

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A hostage drama at a Federal Bank of Lebanon branch in Beirut's Hamra neighbourhood ended without injury on Thursday after an armed man demanded to withdraw his savings, in an incident that illustrated the desperation caused by the country’s financial crisis.

Carrying a shotgun and a gas canister, Bassam Al Sheikh Hussein, 42, threatened to kill the customers and staff he was holding and self-immolate if he could not withdraw his $210,000 in savings to pay for his father's hospital treatment.

An hours-long siege ended without violence on Thursday when Mr Al Sheikh Hussein reportedly left the bank and turned himself in.

It was unclear whether he left with the money he had demanded, but his sister-in-law said that he had been given enough to pay for his father’s hospital expenses.

All the hostages escaped and no one was hurt, a soldier told The National.

Many had sympathy with the hostage-taker, with demonstrators chanting against Lebanon's banks and in support of the gunman. Music blared from speakers and a microphone was passed around.

“We are all Bassam,” chanted some demonstrators.

The bank stand-off came amid growing desperation and a dire and prolonged financial crisis. Life in Lebanon has become increasingly unaffordable for many since the country's economy collapsed in 2019. The local currency has plummeted in value, inflation has soared exponentially, and the state is unable to afford to maintain even basic services such as electricity and water. About three quarters of Lebanon's population has been plunged below the poverty line.

Exacerbating the financial difficulty for residents, commercial banks imposed informal capital controls in early 2019, limiting withdrawals of hard currency. Banks stopped giving dollars to depositors, allowing withdrawals only in vastly devalued Lebanese pounds — about 74 per cent lower than the market rate.

As the hold-up progressed, negotiators offered Mr Al Sheikh Hussein $30,000 from his savings, but he had insisted on withdrawing the full amount from his account, his brother told The National. It is not yet known if he accepted another offer.

As support for Mr Al Sheikh Hussein grew, demonstrations grew more heated, with protesters facing off against security forces dressed in riot gear.

“He has every right to demand his money, after all the politicians stole our money and put it in Switzerland. With force or not with force — he has every right,” one man told The National. Those around him nodded emphatically in agreement.

Another onlooker highlighted how difficult it was for people in Lebanon to get access to their money, saying the hostage-taker's actions were probably “the only way” to get hold of his savings.

Mr Al Sheikh Hussein had tried to withdraw his savings through legal channels for the last three years but had been repeatedly denied, according to Fouad Debs of the Lebanese Depositors Union — an association which seeks to defend depositors' rights and provide legal advice.

Mr Debs argued that the hold-up was not a robbery but a last resort, because Mr Al Sheikh Hussein was demanding his own money.

“We’ve seen the state of the judiciary — they are not even accepting lawsuits because they are on strike. And even when they were [working], they weren’t giving judgment according to law and were biased towards the banks,” Mr Debs said.

“The politicians, the bankers and some of the judges and even the security forces have made it so that [people] can only take their own rights with their own hands.

“The people responsible for this are the ones who should be taken to court. Not him.”

Atef Al Sheikh Hussein, the hostage taker’s brother, stood outside the bank entrance for hours as negotiators tried to ease the situation. He said his brother would accept imprisonment if the bank gave him money to cover their father’s medical bills and family expenses. Their father had a fall earlier this year and requires back surgery.

“We had to take a loan for $6,000 for his hospitalisation when our own money is sitting in the bank,” he told The National.

Mr Al Sheikh Hussein is not the first to hold up a bank to get his savings. In January, coffee shop owner Abdallah Assaii held up a branch in the Bekaa valley, taking seven employees hostage until he made off with $50,000 of his own money. He had poured petrol on himself and the employees, threatening to set everyone on fire if his money was not released.

Mr Debs of the Depositors Union said the hold-ups highlight the increasing desperation of Lebanon’s residents.

“People have no more income. The bankers and politicians have destroyed the economy of Lebanon,” he said.

“To be honest I’m surprised we haven't seen more hold-ups in Lebanon throughout the past three years.”

Updated: August 12, 2022, 10:51 AM
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