Beirut protesters demand the release of bank robbery prisoners

Beirut protesters demand the release of bank robbery prisoners

BEIRUT (AP) — Protesters clashed with Lebanese security forces Monday outside the justice ministry in Beirut, demanding the release of two people arrested last week during a bank robbery.

The clash came as an International Monetary Fund delegation held meetings in Beirut with officials about the country’s economic collapse and the limited steps the government has taken to pull Lebanon out of the worst economic crisis in its modern history. The crisis is rooted in decades of corruption and mismanagement.

The Lebanese government has implemented few of the IMF’s requests from a staff-level agreement reached with the IMF in April. It includes five “key pillars” to be implemented, including restructuring the financial sector, implementing fiscal reforms, the proposed restructuring of external public debt, fighting corruption and anti-money laundering efforts.

The deal also called for the country’s 14 biggest banks to be kept as a model for industry restructuring work, as they control about 80% of the market. Smaller troubled banks should be taken over by larger lenders.

Anger at local lenders who have imposed unofficial capital controls, including limits on ATM withdrawals for nearly three years, has grown in recent weeks, with some depositors storming bank branches and taking their trapped savings by force.

Monday’s demonstration outside the Justice Ministry demanded the release of Abdul-Rahman Zakariya and Mohammed Rustom, who have been held since Wednesday after storming a bank branch and helping a depositor retrieve her trapped savings to pay for her sister’s treatment for cancer.

They were joined by Sally Hafez, who used a toy gun to claim $13,000 from her trapped savings account. Hafez, who was in hiding, said she repeatedly visited the bank to ask for her money and was told she could only receive $200 a month in Lebanese pounds.

On Friday, depositors, including one armed with a shotgun, stormed at least five banks to claim their trapped savings, the largest number of such incidents in a single day. Banks, citing security concerns, closed all branches for three days from Monday.

At one point on Monday, dozens of protesters tried to storm the justice ministry before stopping after a metal gate was removed. There are concerns that if the two men are not released, the protests could intensify.

Elsewhere in Beirut, protesters briefly blocked several major roads in protest at deteriorating living conditions, including almost non-existent state electricity, a crash in the Lebanese pound and rising poverty that has reached three-quarters of the population since the start of the financial crisis in October 2019.

The Lebanese pound hit new lows, hitting 38,600 pounds per US dollar on Monday.

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