a man hailed a hero for ‘stealing’ his own money from a bank

A cafe owner in a rural town in eastern Lebanon became a local hero to some this week after withdrawing $50,000 in cash from his bank account – a move that became impossible two years after the worst financial meltdown in the world. country.

But for others, Abdallah Assaii, 37, is not a hero but a criminal. He was only able to get his money back after he took seven bank workers hostage and allegedly doused them with petrol and threatened to set them on fire – and himself.

Whatever Mr Assaii’s view, Tuesday’s incident at a branch of Lebanon’s BBAC bank in the Beqaa Valley town of Jeb Jannine highlights the desperation felt by many enduring Lebanese. the financial chaos of their country.

Lebanese banks stopped giving out dollars to depositors at the end of 2019 and instead only allow withdrawals in Lebanese pounds – currently at around 65% below the market rate.

No one was seriously injured in the incident, but lawyers for Mr Assaii’s family and the bank disagree on the level of violence he used in negotiations with staff at the bank. the bank and the police.

In the absence of formal capital control laws, the bank’s best chance of prosecuting Mr Assaii is to argue that he physically assaulted staff and was prepared to threaten to kill them, according to the observers.

His family and friends deny that is the case, instead describing a man with no criminal record, driven to despair by debt and unfair banking practices, who apologized to his hostages at the end of their four-week ordeal. time.

Both parties agree that Mr. Assaii surrendered to the police. In the confusion, he gave the money to his Venezuelan wife, whom he called as he left the bank, his lawyer said.

Mr Assaii went on a hunger strike on Thursday, according to his family. His wife is on the run.

Mr. Assaii’s controversial actions have been praised by members of his local community.

“Abdallah succeeded in doing what no one could do in all of Lebanon,” said Abed Nabha, an NGO worker from Mr. Assaii’s hometown of Kefraya, close to Jeb Jannine.

“He didn’t steal the money. It was his,” he added.

Many recognize themselves in Mr. Assai, whose coffee was stolen for up to $15,000 a few weeks before the incident, and who also owed 200 million Lebanese pounds (about $8,700 at the current market rate) for the purchases a fruit and vegetable stand he operated, according to his family.

The bank had refused his repeated requests for checks in the week before Tuesday’s incident, his lawyer said.

The Association of Banks in Lebanon denies that banks have started refusing to issue checks.

In early 2019, Mr. Assai returned to Lebanon after living for a few years in Venezuela, sold land worth $400,000 and used most of it to invest in his businesses, his family said. Her children, aged 7 and 4, are currently staying with family members.

His case “matters to everyone, including myself,” said activist Yassine Yassine from Ghazzeh, a town near Kefraya. “They hold everyone’s money.”

In November 2019, Lebanese banks imposed capital controls as dollars dried up. It was never approved by Parliament and persistent rumors in the Lebanese media claim that well-connected customers sent millions of dollars abroad, while Lebanese with smaller deposits saw the value of their savings plummet.

In the absence of parliamentary oversight, the Banque du Liban central bank issued circulars restricting withdrawals and transfers outside the country from banks, both in Lebanese pounds and US dollars.

A judicial source close to the BBAC said that Mr. Assaii had forced bank staff to hand over the money “despite withdrawal procedures and limits set by the [Banque du Liban] in this time of crisis”.

A photo in the Assaii house shows Abdallah, far right.

But some experts say there is no law giving Lebanese banks the right to refuse to refund a cash amount equivalent to the customer’s deposit currency.

“Everything that has happened so far is central bank actions that have no legal basis,” said Nasser Saidi, Lebanon’s former economy minister and first deputy central bank governor.

“Courts refuse to sue defaulting banks. The judiciary is no longer independent. It is part of the political process,” he added.

Economist Sami Nader said he doubted the bank could press charges against Mr Assaii for withdrawing $50,000, but could focus on his behavior at the bank.

“The bank is violating a fundamental right of the constitution which is private property,” Mr. Nader said.

With little legal recourse for their financial difficulties, feelings of frustration, humiliation and despair are growing among many Lebanese. Supporters of Mr Assaii gathered after Friday prayers at Jeb Jannine.

“We ask the state to release Abdallah Assaii because he is within the law,” said local imam Alaa Baalbaki. “We are all Abdallah Assaii.”

Although Lebanon’s banking sector – once seen as a mainstay of the local economy – is now wildly unpopular, Mr Assaii’s alleged threats of violence against BBAC staff are uneasy even with his supporters .

“It is not acceptable for everyone to claim their rights as he has done,” said Sheikh Muhammad Assayah of Kefraya. “But we have to understand the circumstances that made Abdallah do what he did.”

Abdallah Assaii's sister, Fatima, and her father, Ali, stand on the balcony of their home in the town of Kefraya, in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley.

Mr Assaii’s father, Ali, 56, said his son had no choice. “The economic situation is suffocating everyone,” he said.

Citing news reports of debt-suicide, he asked, “Do you want Abdallah to kill himself? Who would he leave his children with? Me?”

The exact details of what happened in the BBAC bank to Jeb Jannine on Tuesday remain controversial.

A BBAC lawyer claimed that Mr. Assaii held a gun to the head of one of the bank employees, had explosives in his bag and sprayed gasoline at the employees and on the floor, threatening to light a cigarette.

“I’m not against people taking their money, no one is saying what’s going on is good, but it’s not the branch employees’ fault,” an unnamed BBAC employee who was one of Mr. Assaii’s hostages to the local SBI news site.

“Yes [people] want their rights, they must go to the [banks’] main offices and politicians. They are behind what is happening in the country,” she said.

the The BBAC lawyer, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of his safety, said the bank and five employees filed charges against Mr Assaii for destruction of property, robbery with threats, attempted murder, physical assault and deprivation of liberty.

Mr Assaii’s lawyer, Sharif Sleiman, dismissed claims that his client assaulted staff or sprayed petrol, and said although he had a gun he kept it in his bag .

“There was no violence at all,” Mr. Sleiman said, saying only three employees had filed complaints.

Observers said violence was to be expected as Lebanon’s economic crisis worsens. “The tax on inflation has been appalling. I haven’t seen anything like it in history,” Mr. Saidi said.

“What’s happening to people is a crime, no matter what contrived legalities banks or politicians use to try to justify the situation,” said Mike Azar, debt finance adviser and former senior lecturer at the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.

“The fact that banks, government buildings and the BDL have not yet been set on fire by mobs is something of a miracle and a testament to the incredible patience of the Lebanese people.”

Updated: January 24, 2022, 3:26 p.m.