Copycat bank heists multiply as Lebanese depositors grow desperate

After holding bank employees hostage at gunpoint to retrieve the frozen funds she needed for her sister’s cancer treatment, Sali Hafiz had a message for her fellow Lebanese citizens.

“People are committing suicide,” she told a local TV station this week of those who, like her, have grown increasingly desperate three years into a crippling financial crisis. “I tell them: don’t pick up the gun and shoot yourselves. Go get your money, even if it costs you your life.”

Hafiz was not the first person to storm a bank and demand their money but her actions this week caught the public imagination, emboldening those disillusioned by the state and financial institutions they blame for the crisis.

On Friday at least five more people stormed banks with rifles, replica and pellet guns. They demanded their money from bank employees, before being taken into custody in front of cheering crowds.

“People are growing more and more desperate, with fewer avenues for justice: they can’t go to the judiciary, since judges are on indefinite strike [over pay], and they can’t go to the security forces who are in the pocket of our banks and our politicians,” said Fouad Debs, a co-founder of the Depositors Union, a group of lawyers and activists lobbying for depositors’ rights. “What are they supposed to do?”

Debs, a lawyer whose group has helped file more than 400 lawsuits on behalf of depositors in Lebanon — most of which are pending — said people were right to now take matters into their own hands.

With her funds frozen for the past two years and monthly withdrawals capped at the equivalent of $400, Hafiz had been considering selling a kidney to pay for her sister’s cancer treatment. After storming a branch of Blom bank with her nephew’s toy gun, she walked out with money equivalent to $13,000 of her $20,000 on deposit.

Lebanon’s financial collapse, which is now in its third year, has forced three-quarters of the population into poverty. Last month, the World Bank published a report, accusing Lebanese authorities of operating a giant Ponzi scheme that had caused “unprecedented social and economic pain”. The report said public finance was used to capture the state’s resources for political patronage, creating a “deliberate” depression, adding that a significant portion of people’s savings had been “misused and misspent over the past 30 years”.

Hafiz has since gone on the run. Debs said, however, that it was unclear whether these hold-ups would even constitute a misdemeanour under Lebanese law. “None of these people have an intent to hurt — especially those who go in with a toy gun, like [Hafiz]. So the highest penalty would be a fine of 200,000 [Lebanese pounds], equivalent to $5 at today’s black market rate.” 

In August, a man who held up a Federal Bank branch before walking out with $35,000 of his own money, was never charged with a crime. Another man, arrested in January for “robbing” a BBAC branch for his $50,000 in cash, was released on a bail equivalent to about $5.

While they have been widely praised by people whose funds are frozen, banks and employees are worried about the dangerous precedent it sets.

Sali Hafiz, who has since gone on the run, is urging her countrymen to get their money back from banks © Anwar Amro/AFP/Getty Images

“They should all be prosecuted because the employees at the bank are not responsible for this crisis,” said one bank teller, who works at a Blom bank branch in Beirut and asked his name be withheld for fear of retribution. “I’m more worried about my safety when I go in to work now.”

The bank employees syndicate on Thursday said they no longer wanted to be “scapegoats” for Lebanon’s spiralling crisis.

“With our full understanding of the pain and suffering of depositors, we remind them that we are one of them, and that what they suffer from, we do too,” a statement from the union said.

On Friday, the Association of Banks in Lebanon declared a three-day strike, starting on Monday, to protest against “repeated attacks on banks” and their employees. It called on the government to deal with the crisis.

Bank executives meanwhile, have been holding crisis meetings this week, according to three bankers, as they consider ramping up security measures.

Some also contend that the solidarity towards the heisters is misplaced. “You can’t not understand them or be compassionate, especially when they are asking for money for urgent matters like cancer treatment. This is where logic stops, and instinct takes over,” said Marwan Kheireddine, chair of Al-Mawarid Bank.

“But anyone going into any bank in Lebanon and taking possession of any funds in the manner these people did — they’re jumping the line, irrespective of other depositors. In my opinion, that’s not fair,”

Kheireddine lays the blame squarely at the feet of Lebanon’s government — which has failed to come up with a rescue plan — while Debs and many activists argue the banks are equally complicit.

An IMF delegation will visit Beirut next week, to discuss banking reforms that would unlock $3bn in loans. The government has so far been slow to act, with analysts and activists warning time was running out for recovery.

“Lebanon’s politicians, bankers and their allies have been sabotaging every chance for recovery, and they are leaving the people to die,” said Debs, the lawyer. “This is the only country in the world where you have to threaten a bank with guns to get your own money out. As [Hafiz] said: people have nothing left to lose.”

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