Why Lebanese sisters robbed a bank to get their own money
by Chantelle Francis  /  October 7, 2022

“A woman has spoken of the sad reason she robbed a bank to get her own money in Lebanon – and it’s far from an isolated case as desperate people take extreme action to get hands on their own cash. Banks have imposed limits on citizens’ withdrawals despite how much is in their account since the start of the country’s financial crash in 2019.

Commercial lenders have effectively banned most foreign currency transactions, forcing depositors to withdraw their savings in the plummeting Lebanese pound, which has lost more than 95 per cent of its value against the US dollar on the black market. A video last month showed two sisters holding up a bank in Beirut with a toy gun – as customers and workers screamed in fear. They are now on the run. Sali Hafiz told BBC she needed the money to pay for her other sister’s cancer treatment.

“It wasn’t an easy choice to do what I did but I’d reached a breaking point,” the 28-year-old said, according to an English translation. Ms Hafiz said the banks were to blame. “I apologise to all the people I frightened but how does that compare to the despair, anger and grief I feel every day, knowing my sister is dying,” she said. A phone picture of Ms Hafiz standing on a desk inside the bank during the heist went viral online. She was ordered to pay a fine of one million Lebanese pounds, around $1,000AUD, and hit with a six-month travel ban.

Just days before, a father-of-seven held up a Beirut bank with a gun – that he has since claimed wasn’t loaded – to demand thousands of dollars from his savings account. Speaking while on bail, Jawad Slim told BBC he needed the money to pay for schooling for his children and believes he did not commit a crime. “Had they given us our money, we wouldn’t have needed to do this,” he said. At least five banks had “depositor heists” the same day.

One man believed to be in his 50s was carrying a gun and jerry can of fuel when he stormed a bank in the small city of Ghaziyeh to demand staff hand over his money. “He emptied a jerrican of fuel on the floor,” a bank security guard told an AFP reporter. Lebanon’s banks were forced to close for a week after the series of heists on September 16 but have since reopened amid tight security.

The month before, a man with a rifle threatening to set himself ablaze held Beirut bank workers hostage for hours, demanding access to his savings to pay hospital fees for his sick dad. A security source told AFP a man in his forties “poured gasoline all over the bank, and closed the bank’s front door, holding employees hostage”. His brother told journalists: “My brother has $210,000 in the bank and wants to get just $5,500 to pay hospital bills.”

George al-Hajj, who heads Lebanon’s bank employees’ union, told AFP outside the bank that a radical solution was needed. “This is not the first such case. Similar incidents keep happening. We need a radical solution,” he said. “Depositors want their money, and unfortunately their anger explodes in the face of bank employees because they cannot reach the management.” In a number of cases, the alleged criminals have handed themselves in after the bank agreed to give them a portion of their money, and a crowd of supporters often gather out the front to cheer or chant.

“Protesters try to pull out the gate leading to the Justice Palace in Beirut
demanding the release of two people involved in a bank heist”

A Lebanese politician entered a bank branch, accompanied by lawyers, and freed more than $US8000 ($12,000) in trapped dollar deposits on Wednesday to pay for surgery. Cynthia Zarazir, who was elected to parliament in May, unarmed but with legal cover, entered her bank branch in a northern suburb of Beirut at around 9am local time to demand the money, her lawyer Fouad Debs said. Mr Debs said the money was to pay for surgery costs not covered by her health insurance. She exited hours later after the bank paid her the sum in cash, Mr Debs and the official National News Agency said. Several activists had gathered outside the bank to support Ms Zarazir.

Also on Wednesday, a retired member of Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces stormed a bank in Beirut’s southern suburbs to demand access to $US48,000 ($74,000) in savings as well as 270 million Lebanese pounds from his pension. He was unarmed. “After negotiations with the bank’s management, he managed to get all his Lebanese pound deposits and $US3,000 ($4500)” in trapped dollar savings, said Ibrahim Abdullah, a spokesman for the Depositors Union advocacy group. Meanwhile, dozens of protesters gathered outside the central bank headquarters in Beirut to demand access to their money, amid a heavy troop deployment.

“We came to claim our rights,” said protester Houssam Machmouchi, 42. “We are not beggars, we just want our money.” On Tuesday, a retired diplomat and honorary consul of Ireland, Georges Siam, carried out an all-day sit-in at a bank in the suburbs of Beirut to recover his savings before eventually reaching a compromise. Almost simultaneously, at least two other armed bank heists took place in separate branches. They included one by a retired policeman who held up a bank in eastern Lebanon to demand a money transfer to his son in Ukraine to help pay for rent and university tuition.”

On the run, Lebanese woman who stole own savings says she’s not the criminal
by Timour Azhari and   /  9.21.22

“On the run from authorities after forcing a bank to release her family savings at gunpoint to treat her cancer-stricken sister, 28-year-old Lebanese interior designer Sali Hafiz insists she is not the criminal. “We are in the country of mafias. If you are not a wolf, the wolves will eat you,” she told Reuters, standing on a dirt track somewhere in Lebanon’s rugged eastern Bekaa valley where she has since been in hiding. Hafiz held up a Beirut branch of BLOM Bank last week, taking by force some $13,000 in savings in her sister’s account frozen by capital controls that were imposed overnight by commercial banks in 2019 but never made legal via legislation.

Dramatic footage of the incident, in which she cocks what later turned out to be a toy gun and stands atop a desk bossing around employees who hand her wads of cash, turned her into an instant folk hero in a country where hundreds of thousands of people are locked out of their savings. A growing number are taking matters into their own hands, exasperated by a three-year financial implosion that authorities have left to fester – leading the World Bank to describe it as “orchestrated by the country’s elite”. Hafiz was the first of at least seven savers who held up banks last week, prompting banks to shut their doors citing security concerns, and call for security support from the government.

George Haj of the bank employees syndicate said the holdups were misguiding anger that should be directed at the Lebanese state, which was most to blame for the crisis, and noted some 6,000 bank employees had lost their jobs since it began. Authorities have condemned the holdups and say they are preparing a security plan for banks. But depositors argue that bank owners and shareholders have enriched themselves by getting high interest payments for lending the government depositors’ money and are prioritising the banks over people rather than enacting an IMF rescue plan.

The government says it is working hard to implement IMF reforms and aims to secure a $3 billion bailout this year. The series of raids have been met with widespread support, including from crowds that gather outside the banks when they hear a holdup is taking place to cheer them on. “Maybe they saw me as a hero because I was the first woman who does this in a patriarchal society where a woman’s voice is not supposed to be heard,” Hafiz said, adding she had not intended to harm anyone but was tired of government inaction. “They are all in cahoots to steal from us and leave us to go hungry and die slowly,” she said.

When her sister began losing hope she would be able to afford costly treatment to help regain mobility and speech impaired by brain cancer, and the bank declined to provide the savings, Hafiz said she decided to act. BLOM Bank said in a statement that the branch had been cooperative with her request for funds but asked for documentation as they do for all customers requesting humanitarian exceptions to the informal controls. Hafiz then returned two days later with a toy gun she had seen her nephews playing with, and a small amount of fuel that she mixed with water and spilled on to an employee.

Before her raid, she watched popular Egyptian black comedy Irhab w Kabab – or “Terrorist and Kabab” – in which a man frustrated with government corruption holds up a state building and demands kebabs for the hostages due to the high price of meat. She managed to get $13,000 of a total $20,000 – enough to cover travel expenses for her sister and about a month of treatment – and made sure to sign a receipt so that she would not be accused of theft. To aid her escape, Hafiz posted on Facebook that she was already at the airport and on her way to Istanbul.

She ran home and disguised herself in a robe and headscarf and placed a bundle of clothes on her belly to make herself appear pregnant. A police officer who knocked on her door “must have been scared I would give birth in front of him. I went downstairs in front of them all, like 60 or 70 people… they were wishing me luck with the birth. It was… like the movies,” she said, after they failed to recognise her. Two of Hafiz’s close friends with her at the bank hold up were detained after the incident over charges of threatening bank employees and holding them against their will, and ordered released on bail on Wednesday.

Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces did not respond to a request for comment on the case. Hafiz said she would hand herself in once judges end a crippling strike that has slowed legal procedures and left detainees languishing in jail. Abdallah Al-Saii, an acquaintance of Hafiz who held up a bank in January to get some $50,000 of his own savings, said more hold-ups were coming. “Things will have to get worse so that they can get better,” Saii said, taking drags from a cigarette at his convenience store in the Bekaa. “When the state can’t do anything for you and can’t even provide a tiny bit of hope over what lies in store, then we’re living by the law of the jungle.”

Depositors Hold Up Two Lebanese Banks To Grab Their Own Money
by   /  09.14.22

“Two seemingly armed and desperate Lebanese depositors held up banks on Wednesday to force access to their own money, which has been blocked during a national financial meltdown. One woman with a gun and some associates briefly held hostages at a branch of BLOM Bank in the capital Beirut, before leaving with more than $13,000 in cash from her account, a source from a depositors’ advocacy group said. Shortly afterwards, in the mountain city of Aley, an armed man entered a Bankmed branch and retrieved some of his trapped savings, before handing himself into authorities, the Depositors Outcry and a security source said.

“Men are seen through a shattered window of a Blom Bank branch, where
a group of depositors, at least one of whom is armed, took hostages”

Lebanon’s banks have locked most depositors out of their savings since an economic crisis took hold three years ago, leaving much of the population unable to pay for basics. In a phenomenon illustrating the plight, Wednesday’s holdups came after a man last month held up another Beirut bank to withdraw funds to treat his sick father. BLOM Bank said a customer and accomplices arrived with a gun, threatened to set people on fire, and forced the branch manager and treasurer to bring money from a safe.

Before going into hiding, the woman, Sali Hafiz, told local news channel Al Jadeed TV the gun was a toy and that she needed the money for her sister’s cancer treatment. “I have nothing more to lose, I got to the end of the road,” she said, saying a visit to the bank manager two days previously had not provided an adequate solution. “I got to a point where I was going to sell my kidney so that my sister could receive treatment.” BLOM confirmed the customer had been in to seek her money for her sister’s treatment, saying she was offered total cooperation and requested to provide documentation. “All we have is this money in the bank. My daughter was forced to take this money – it’s her right, it’s in her account – to treat her sister,” her mother Hiam Hafiz told local TV.

Following last month’s holdup, which also involved hostages, the accused perpetrator was arrested but then released without charge after the bank dropped its lawsuit. One senior Lebanese banker, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters it was a worrying precedent, “I think this is an invitation for other people to do the same. As long as people get away with it, they will continue. What a failed state,” the banker said. Banks say they make exceptions for humanitarian cases including hospital care, but depositors say that rarely happens.”

“Those liberating their savings are seen as heroes by the public
corrupt banks, say supporters, are the real thieves”

‘Depositor heists’ force bank closures in Lebanon  /  16.09.2022

“Five banks in Lebanon were the target of “depositor heists” Friday, bringing the week’s total to seven. Now, banks in the debt-ridden country have decided to close their doors for three days, beginning Monday, to regroup, according to the Association of Banks in Lebanon. Friday saw repeats of events that took place on Wednesday, when a woman filmed herself holding up her Beirut bank, armed with a toy pistol.

Lebanon has been caught in an economic black hole for three years as its currency has plummeted and banks tightened withdrawal restrictions on customer accounts. Reports about the motivation of individuals desperate to gain access to their hard-earned savings to spend on things like cancer treatment, have garnered broad public support. “The thieves are the banks, the government and all the rich people protecting them,” said one Beirut resident referring to the Wednesday holdup. Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi convened an emergency meeting to address the situation late Friday. He said of the heists: “Reclaiming rights in this way… can break the system and cause the rest of the depositors lose their rights.”

As the country’s political and economic crises endure — fueling the further spiral of devaluation, poverty and unemployment — citizens are powerless as banks help senior elected officials shuffle fortunes out of the country. Neither has the country been able to meet the demands of the International Monetary Fund (IMF); or, as recently, pass the 2022 budget, the reforms of which would unlock billions in foreign funds. Parliament will again take up the matter of the budget on September 26, after Friday’s session was abandoned when several members walked out of the chamber. Frustrated over corruption and inaction, the public can relate to desperate individuals with no criminal records resorting to extreme means to get what is theirs. “We call on every depositor who refuses injustice, oppression and theft to support any depositor who asks for what is rightfully theirs,” said one member of the Association of Depositors in Lebanon.

Police seem to be looking at the acts with a sense of leniency thus far, and despite several “robberies” involving hostage taking, no one has been hurt in any of the incidents — which instead tend to attract throngs of supporters. Should the banks fail to come up with an adequate plan for thwarting such incidents in the future, observers say the tense situation could worsen, further destabilizing an already dysfunctional government. Lebanon defaulted on its debt for the first time in March 2020, which was then $90 billion (€89.97) — 170% of the gross domestic product.

The crisis has only worsened as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, as well as a massive blast at a fertilizer storage facility in the heart of Beirut that killed more than 200 people and caused billions in damage in 2020. The World Bank has described the situation, in which three-quarters of the population now live in poverty, as one of the worst economic crises in the world. At a Thursday news conference, a protest group calling itself Depositors’ Outcry told reporters there would be more hold-ups — “This is a battle to liberate deposits,” the group said.”



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