Activists who held up Beirut bank released

Activists who held up Beirut bank released
Demonstrators who protested in solidarity with the activists were beaten by security forces on Monday.
3 min read
21 September, 2022
Lebanese security forces stand outside the Palace of Justice as two activists attend their court hearing inside. [TNA/William Christou]

Two activists who held up a bank last week were released from custody on Wednesday, following days of protest outside Beirut's Palace of Justice.

The activists, Abd al-Rahman Zakaria and Mohammed Rustoom, were released on a bail of 5 million Lebanese lira (US$132) each and were forbidden from travelling for six months, according to their lawyer.

Both men were arrested after assisting Sali Hafez in holding up a bank on 14 September. Hafez used a toy gun to compel bank staff to release $13,000 of her own funds, which she reportedly needed to pay for her sister’s cancer treatment. Hafez travelled to Istanbul directly after the bank holdup.

Lebanese banks froze savings accounts during the country's 2019 financial crisis and have since maintained strict withdrawal limits – in effect causing millions of Lebanese to lose their savings.

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Since the crisis began, over two-thirds of Lebanese have been thrust into poverty and essential services such as electricity and healthcare have been severely degraded.

Last week, at least eight banks were held up in separate incidents as depositors tried to get their money back. Though met with popular approval, the Lebanese Interior Ministry urged depositors to rely on legal means to free up their savings while the Association of Banks (ABL) announced a three-day bank closure in protest.

None of those who held up banks besides Zakaria and Rustoom were charged, though ABL promised that it would press charges as a means of deterring future hold-ups.

Demonstrators stood outside the Palace of Justice for three days to protest the detention of the two activists. On Monday, Lebanese authorities beat and arrested protesters, injuring some of them.

One of the protesters, Ali Hamed, was arrested by authorities and taken to a second location, where he was beaten. The beating left him with a broken shoulder, among other injuries.

"They hit me in the head, in the shoulder, they started to threaten us. Every time I spoke, they got annoyed and beat me more. When they finished, they covered our eyes … and we were taken to the hospital," Hamed, the 25-year-old protester told The New Arab.

"We are standing here in support of [Zakaria and Rustoom]. We are standing not just for them, this is an ideological issue. We will stand strong until the end, against the state, against the banks, and against military rule," Hamed said.

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Lebanon has not decided on a financial recovery plan which would help recover the deposits frozen since 2019. Various plans have been floated since then, many of which put the bulk of the banking sector’s losses on depositors rather than on banks. However, none of them was formally adopted.

The IMF has urged Lebanon to make financial reforms, including a capital control and banking transparency law, in order to unlock much-needed international financial assistance.

After meeting with IMF officials on Monday, Lebanon’s Minister of Economy said that he hopes these reforms can be adopted before the end of next month if there is "political will."