Lebanese depositors hold up two banks and take hostages to withdraw savings

Banks have barred depositors withdrawing their savings and set strict limits on cash withdrawals due to the financial crisis

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Two separate groups of angry depositors held up two different banks in Lebanon on Wednesday, demanding access to their savings in the latest act of civil disobedience over frozen accounts.

A woman who led a group that took hostages and held up a bank in Beirut's Sodeco area left with $13,000 of her savings. She said this was to pay for cancer treatment for her ill sister. Hours later, an armed man in Aley, a town south-east of Beirut, held up a bank and withdrew $30,000 of his savings.

The two unconnected incidents within hours of each other are the latest in a series of hostage situations in Lebanese banks that began in January. They came as people demand access to their savings trapped in Lebanese banks that have placed strict withdrawal limits on depositors.

The country is reeling from a financial crisis that has left two-thirds of the nation's population impoverished and locked out of their bank accounts.

In central Beirut, an armed woman identified as Sali Hafez was assisted by a group of activists in storming a branch of the Blom Bank in Sodeco, taking hostages and successfully withdrawing $13,000 of trapped savings.

Ms Hafez and the group live-streamed the raid and the videos were shared widely on social media, with many praising her for taking on the banks.

In a video posted to her Facebook page, Ms Hafez could be heard giving orders and demanding money from bank employees. She could also be heard taking advice from someone in her group.

“I am here at Blom Bank today to withdraw the deposit of my sister, who is dying in the hospital,” she said in the video.

One of the depositorsm who stormed the Blom Bank in Beirut, demanding access to their savings. Photo: NNA

M Hafez said she needed the money to pay for her sister's cancer treatment. On Tuesday evening, she posted a photo of her sick sister in the hospital.

“I promise you that you'll travel for your treatment and return, stand on your own two legs and raise your daughter,” Ms Hafez posted. “Even if it costs me my life.”

Ms Hafez remains on the run although the Internal Security Forces arrested two others involved in the incident, according to lawyer Wasef Haraki, who represents one of the detained men.

Those arrested at the scene were identified as Abdelrahman Zakareya and Mohammad Rustom.

The Internal Security Forces declined to comment on Ms Hafez's whereabouts. However, in a post on her Facebook page, Ms Hafez said that her house was surrounded by police but she was headed for the airport.

“See you in Istanbul!” she said.

Eyewitnesses who spoke to local media immediately after the event said the hostage takers had doused themselves, customers and employees in petrol as they demanded their savings.

Ms Hafez also reportedly held a gun to a bank teller's head and demanded money. She later told a local media outlet the gun was fake.

Footage the group live-streamed and shared online showed members standing on desks, chanting slogans and demanding access to their accounts. In one clip, the group of hostage takers could be seen counting stacks of money taken from tills.

Members of the Lebanese security forces stand next to a toy gun that was used by depositors in a hostage situation at a Blom Bank branch in Beirut. EPA

The Depositors Outcry association — a group which advocates freeing the deposits of Lebanese citizens — took responsibility and admitted to helping orchestrate the heist. Some members entered the bank with Ms Hafez, while others staged a demonstration outside.

Rami Oleik, a lawyer and founder of the United Alliance Against Corruption which provides legal aid to Depositors Outcry, was one of those who accompanied Ms Hafez in the bank.

He insisted that such action to withdraw your own money was not illegal.

“Article 184 of the Penal Code permits the use of force and the committing of an offence in defence of oneself and their money,” Mr Oleik said.

He described the informal capital controls put in place by the banks as “the real violence that is taking place daily against people who are unable to access their deposits: Mothers with children, spouses, the sick and elderly.”

Lebanon’s commercial banks imposed informal capital controls in late 2019, severely limiting withdrawals of hard currency. The measures, which were not legally sanctioned, effectively mean depositors can take out only limited quantities of their own money — and often not at their full dollar value.

Capital controls have significantly limited the ability of citizens to survive in a nation that is crumbling under a severe economic and financial crisis. The World Bank has called the crisis one of the worst in the modern world.

Separately, in Aley, a man identified as Rami Sharafeddein was arrested after holding up a bank and successfully withdrawing $30,000 of his savings, a security source told The National.

Alaa Khourchid, the head of Depositors Outcry, told The National the group was not involved in the Aley bank hold-up, but warned such incidents will become more frequent.

Last month, Bassam Al Sheikh Hussein became a folk hero after taking hostages at the Federal Bank of Lebanon in Beirut.

He was detained after successfully withdrawing $35,000 of his own money following a seven-hour standoff with security forces. Mr Al Sheikh Hussein was released within days of his arrest.

Updated: September 15, 2022, 8:22 AM
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