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Lebanese lawmaker ends protest after release of ‘frozen’ savings

Person, Human, Clothing Thomson Reuters/MOHAMED AZAKIR

Lebanese lawmaker Cynthia Zarazir ended a protest at a bank on Wednesday after obtaining the funds she needed from her frozen savings to pay for surgery, her lawyer said, in the latest in a series of stand-offs between individuals and lenders.

Zarazir, who was elected in May to represent Beirut, entered the Antelias branch of Byblos Bank unarmed on Wednesday morning with two lawyers, and staged a sit-in for four hours as a ‘last resort’ to access her money, her lawyer said.

Fouad Debs, one of the lawyers, confirmed to Reuters that Zarazir got access to the $8,500 she needed.

Cases of bank hold-ups and protests have snowballed across Lebanon recently as depositors have grown exasperated over informal capital controls that banks have imposed since an economic downturn began in 2019.

Depositors can only withdraw limited amounts in US dollars or the Lebanese pound, which has lost more than 95 percent of its value since the crisis began.

Most withdrawals of foreign currency are carried out at an exchange rate that is unfavourable to depositors, amounting to a roughly 80 percent cut on their value.

“We’ve spent a few days going back and forth to the bank and bringing my (medical) reports and they didn’t answer us. I can’t delay this any more. I came to take my money,” Zarazir said.

“I came as a regular citizen, not as an MP,” she added.

A spokesperson for Byblos Bank was not immediately available for comment.

Zarazir’s sit-in coincided with a separate hold-up in a suburb of Beirut, where a man identified as Hussein Shukr demanded $48,000 from his account.

“I’ll stay here forever – a day, two days, three days – I want my right,” said Shukr in a video published by the Depositors’ Outcry Association, an advocacy group.

Depositors’ Outcry also organised a protest outside Lebanon’s Central Bank, where dozens of protesters briefly lit tyres and tossed bottles over metal barricades at the building.

Further north in the town of Jbeil, an unidentified assailant fired shots at a Beirut Bank branch on Wednesday and then fled, a security source said. There were no injuries.

The tensions on Wednesday came after four hold-ups across the country the previous day, two of them involving armed men demanding their deposits. Another incident took place on Monday.

Lebanon’s banking association has expressed outrage over the hold-ups. A similar spree last month prompted banks to close for about a week.

The Depositors’ Outcry Association on Wednesday threatened more hold-ups.

“Either find a solution to the issue of depositors and start paying a portion of the deposits without a haircut, or we continue our open war against you, thieves,” it said in a statement.