Woman armed with toy gun forces Beirut bank to hand over $13,000 in withheld savings

A woman is comforted at a Blom Bank branch after a group of depositors took hostages in Beirut, Lebanon on Sept. 14, 2022. (Reuters)
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Updated 15 September 2022

Woman armed with toy gun forces Beirut bank to hand over $13,000 in withheld savings

  • Sali Hafiz, who poured gasoline over herself, said she needed the money to pay medical bills for ailing sister
  • Hafiz, wearing black clothes and face uncovered, entered BLOM bank in Beiru accompanied by activists and lawyer

BEIRUT: A woman entered a bank in Lebanon on Wednesday brandishing a gun, poured gasoline over herself and demanded that she be allowed to withdraw her savings. She left with $13,000. It later appeared that the gun was a toy.

It followed a similar incident earlier in the day in Aley. Access to funds held in Lebanese banks has been heavily restricted for some time as the country is in the midst of a long-running financial crisis.

Both incidents were greeted with widespread sympathy and support from the public, especially from other frustrated depositors.

Sali Hafiz, wearing black clothes and with her face uncovered, entered the Sodeco branch of BLOM bank in Beirut, across from the headquarters of the security forces, accompanied by activists from the Depositors’ Outcry Association and a lawyer.

She pulled out what appeared to be a gun, stood on a table and doused herself in gasoline from a bottle. She threatened to set herself and the bank on fire if she did not receive her and her sister’s joint deposits of about $20,000. She said her sister has brain cancer and they need the money to pay medical bills.

It appeared that Hafiz’s 23-year-old sister, Nancy, was in a car parked outside the bank with her husband, who was driving. She seemed to have lost her hair and her body appeared feeble. She could not walk and had difficulty speaking.

When Hafiz poured the gasoline over herself in the bank it sparked panic among employees and customers, and screams could be heard. As people clamored to get out they broke down a glass wall and fled.

Video footage filmed by the activists accompanying Hafiz show them demanding she receive her savings and telling staff to open cash boxes. One of the boxes contained $6,300 but Hafiz refused to accept this amount and demanded all of the money in her account. Eventually she was given $13,000 and left the bank without being stopped by security.

A small team of internal security officers arrived later and arrested some of the activists close to the bank where they were protesting against the banks and the governor of the central bank, Riad Salameh.

Later, in a TV interview, Hafiz said she is not a thief and had not harmed anyone. She said she had been forced to take action because her sister was dying.

“She needs an expensive injection daily for her treatment,” she said. “I went to the bank two days earlier to present the issue and asked the bank manager to give me the deposit to cover the cost of the treatment but he offered me just $200 a month, which was not enough for one injection per day.

“At home, we sold all our valuables to cover the cost of my sister’s treatment and I almost sold one of my kidneys to get some money. The deposit in the bank was saved by me and my sister from our work and it is held by the bank.”

She said that the money she took from the bank had been filmed by CCTV cameras so “we would not be accused of theft.”

Hafiz added: “I reassured the bank employees that I did not want to harm anyone but, rather, I wanted to save a human being. The weapon in my possession was one of my nephew’s toys.”

Her family lives near the branch where the incident took place. Her mother told Arab News: “My daughter, Nancy, almost committed suicide because she gave up on life. Sali could not stand seeing her sister suffer. We did not take money that was not ours. They refused to give us our money, so Sali resorted to what she did.”

Nancy described her sister as a “hero.” Other Lebanese said Hafiz “is strong and we are with her.”

In a separate incident on Wednesday, a young man called Rami Sharaf Al-Din entered a branch of Bankmed in the city of Aley. He reportedly threatened employees but, according to officials, members of the security services intervened and arrested him.

The incidents come a month after depositor Bassam Al-Sheikh Hussein held staff at a bank in Beirut hostage to get his savings so that he could pay his father’s medical bills. In the light of such events, bank employees are said to be considering going on a strike.

BLOM Bank said that the incident at its branch on Wednesday was a “premeditated and planned operation with the intent to harm.”

George Al-Hajj, president of the Federation of Syndicates of Banks Employees in Lebanon, told Arab News: “So far these incidents are happening without any bloodshed. However, the question is how is this dilemma going to be resolved?

“Going on a strike is not a solution but a loss for the country. Depositors have the right to receive their deposits. Bank employees are also depositors. Three years have passed and this dilemma is yet to be solved.

“They discuss the capital control law but do not approve it. They propose a plan to restructure banks. However, they do nothing. With every passing day, the crisis is worsening, losses increasing.”

He added that the federation is keen to “preserve the presence of bank employees or else they will lose their jobs. The break-ins happening are affecting all depositors and their money. It is important that the bank sector remains the safety valve of the Lebanese economy.”

Hassan Moghnieh, head of the Association of Depositors in Lebanon, told Arab News: “We do not encourage bank break-ins but failing to address this intensifying crisis, and dealing with people’s money with recklessness, might push many depositors to take this step as restitution, rather than theft or assault.”


Iran frees hundreds after World Cup win over Wales

Updated 28 November 2022

Iran frees hundreds after World Cup win over Wales

  • 709 detainees were freed from different prisons in the country
  • Prominent Iranian actor Hengameh Ghaziani had also been released on bail

TEHRAN: Iran has released more than 700 prisoners after the national team’s World Cup football victory over Wales, the judiciary’s Mizan Online website said Monday.
It announced that “709 detainees were freed from different prisons in the country” following the 2-0 victory on Friday.
Among those are “some arrested during the recent events,” Mizan Online said, making indirect reference to demonstrations which have shaken Iran for more than two months.
It gave no further detail.
The ongoing protests were triggered by the September 16 death in custody of Mahsa Amini, 22, after her arrest by morality police for an alleged breach of Iran’s strict dress rules for women.
Other Iranian media separately reported that prominent Iranian actor Hengameh Ghaziani had been released on bail after her arrest for having supported the protests.
Two of the most prominent figures detained over the demonstrations — former international footballer Voria Ghafouri and dissident Hossein Ronaghi — were also let out on bail, reports said.
State news agency IRNA reported on Monday that former state television host Mahmoud Shahriari, 63, had been released after two months in prison for “encouraging riots.”
Iran on Friday scored twice deep into stoppage time to stun Wales and breathe new life into its World Cup campaign ahead of a politically charged showdown Tuesday against the United States.
Iran lost its first World Cup match to England, 6-2.
Iran’s judiciary says more than 2,000 people have been charged since the start of the protests.
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk last week said around 14,000 people have been arrested.


Niece of Iran’s Supreme Leader urges world to cut ties with Tehran over unrest

Updated 28 November 2022

Niece of Iran’s Supreme Leader urges world to cut ties with Tehran over unrest

  • Farideh Moradkhani is an engineer whose late father was a prominent opposition figure married to Khamenei’s sister
  • “This regime is not loyal to any of its religious principles, no rules except maintaining power," Moradkhani says

DUBAI: Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s niece, a well known rights activist, has called on foreign governments to cut all ties with Tehran over its violent crackdown on popular unrest kindled by the death in police custody of a young woman.
A video of a statement by Farideh Moradkhani, an engineer whose late father was a prominent opposition figure married to Khamenei’s sister, was being widely shared online after what activist news agency HRANA said was her arrest on Nov. 23.
“O free people, be with us and tell your governments to stop supporting this murderous and child-killing regime,” Moradkhani said in the video. “This regime is not loyal to any of its religious principles and does not know any rules except force and maintaining power.”
Khamenei’s office did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.
HRANA said 450 protesters had been killed in more than two months of nationwide unrest as of Nov. 26, including 63 minors. It said 60 members of the security forces had been killed, and 18,173 protesters detained.
The protests, sparked by the death of 22-year-old Kurdish Iranian woman Mahsa Amini after her arrest for “inappropriate attire,” pose one of the strongest challenges to the country’s clerical establishment since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Jalal Mahmoudzadeh, a member of parliament from the mainly Kurdish city of Mahabad, said on Sunday that as many as 105 people had been killed in Kurdish-populated areas during the protests. He was speaking in a debate in parliament as quoted by the Entekhan website.
Widespread opposition 
Challenging the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy, protesters from all walks of life have burned pictures of Khamenei and called for the downfall of Iran’s Shiite Muslim theocracy.
The video was shared on YouTube on Friday by her brother, France-based Mahmoud Moradkhani, who presents himself as “an opponent of the Islamic Republic” on his Twitter account, and then by prominent Iranian rights activists.
On Nov. 23, Mahmoud Moradkhani reported her sister’s arrest as she was heeding a court order to appear at the Tehran prosecutor’s office. Farideh had been arrested earlier this year by Iran’s Intelligence Ministry and later released on bail.
HRANA said she was in Tehran’s Evin security prison. Moradkhani, it said, had earlier faced a 15-year prison sentence on unspecified charges.
Her father, Ali Moradkhani Arangeh, was a Shiite cleric married to Khamenei’s sister and recently passed away in Tehran following years of isolation due to his stance against the Islamic Republic, according to his website.
Farideh Moradkhani added in her video: “Now is the time for all free and democratic countries to recall their representatives from Iran as a symbolic gesture and to expel the representatives of this brutal regime from their countries.”
On Thursday, the United Nations’ top human rights body decided by a comfortable margin to establish a new investigative mission to look into Tehran’s violent security crackdown on the anti-government protests.
Criticism of the Islamic Republic by relatives of top officials is not unprecedented. In 2012, Faezeh Hashemi Rafsanjani, the daughter of late former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, was sentenced to jail for “anti-state propaganda.”
Iranian authorities released on bail the activist and blogger Hossein Ronaghi on Nov. 26 to undergo medical treatment, according to his brother writing on Twitter.
Concerns had been growing about Ronaghi’s health after he went on a hunger strike last month. 


Turkish forces nearly ready for a Syria ground operation – officials

Updated 28 November 2022

Turkish forces nearly ready for a Syria ground operation – officials

  • Eescalation comes after a deadly bomb attack in Istanbul two weeks ago that Ankara blamed on the YPG militia

ONCUPINAR, Turkiye: Turkiye’s army needs just a few days to be ready for a ground incursion into northern Syria and such a decision may come at a cabinet meeting on Monday, Turkish officials said, as Turkish forces bombarded a Kurdish militia across the border.
Howitzers fired daily from Turkiye have struck Kurdish YPG targets for a week, while warplanes have carried out airstrikes.
The escalation comes after a deadly bomb attack in Istanbul two weeks ago that Ankara blamed on the YPG militia. The YPG has denied involvement in the bombing and has responded at times to the cross-border attacks with mortar shelling.
“The Turkish Armed Forces needs just a few days to become almost fully ready,” one senior official said, adding that Turkiye-allied Syrian rebel fighters were ready for such an operation just a few days after the Nov. 13 Istanbul bomb.
“It won’t take long for the operation to begin,” he said. “It depends only on the president giving the word.”
Turkiye has previously launched military incursions in Syria against the YPG, regarding it as a wing of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which Turkiye, the United States and European Union designate a terrorist group.
The PKK has also denied carrying out the Istanbul attack, in which six people were killed on a busy pedestrian avenue.
President Tayyip Erdogan has said Turkiye would launch a land operation when convenient to secure its southern border. He will chair a cabinet meeting at 3:30 p.m. (1230 GMT).
“All the preparations are complete. It’s now a political decision,” another Turkish official told Reuters, also requesting anonymity ahead of the meeting.
Erdogan said back in May that Turkiye would soon launch a military operation against the YPG in Syria, but such an operation did not materialize at that time.
The first Turkish official said a ground operation, targeting the areas of Manbij, Kobani and Tel Rifat, was inevitable to link up the areas brought under the control of Turkiye and its Syrian allies with incursions since 2016.
Ankara had been in contact with Moscow and Washington about its military activities, the person added.
The United States has told NATO member Turkiye it has serious concerns that an escalation would affect the goal of fighting Daesh militants in Syria.
Russia asked Turkiye to refrain from a full-scale ground offensive. It has supported Syrian President Bashar Assad in the country’s 11-year war, while Ankara has backed rebels fighting to topple him.
On Monday, the defense ministry said Turkiye’s army had “neutralized” 14 YPG militants preparing to carry out attacks in Syrian areas under Turkiye’s control. It typically uses the term to describe casualties.
The defense ministry said on Saturday three Turkish soldiers had been killed in northern Iraq, where the military has been conducting an operation against the PKK since April.
Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, having traveled to the Iraqi border area, was quoted as telling military commanders on Sunday that Turkiye will “complete the tasks” of the mission.

Related


Iran rejects UN investigation into protests — spokesperson

Updated 28 November 2022

Iran rejects UN investigation into protests — spokesperson

  • Tehran summoned the German ambassador to protest last week’s UN Human Rights Council decision
  • Foreign ministry spokesman: Western nations were involved in protests that have swept the country

DUBAI: Iran will reject a newly-appointed independent UN investigation into the country’s repression of anti-government protests, the foreign ministry said on Monday, as demonstrations showed no sign of abating.

“Iran will have no cooperation with the political committee formed by the UN Rights Council,” ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani said.

The UN Rights Council voted on Thursday to appoint a probe into Iran’s deadly crackdown on protests.

Tehran on Monday summoned the German ambassador to protest last week’s UN Human Rights Council decision, based on a resolution co-sponsored by Berlin, to probe Iran’s response to nationwide protests.
It is the third time since the demonstrations started more than two months ago that Tehran has called in Berlin’s representative to the Islamic republic.

Volker Turk, the UN rights commissioner, had earlier demanded that Iran end its “disproportionate” use of force in quashing protests that erupted after the death in custody of 22-year-old Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini on Sept. 16.

Activist news agency HRANA said 450 protesters had been killed in more than two months of nationwide unrest as of Nov. 26, including 63 minors. It said 60 members of the security forces had been killed, and 18,173 protesters detained.

Challenging the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy, protesters from all walks of life have burned pictures of Khamenei and called for the downfall of Iran’s Shiite Muslim theocracy.

The protests have particularly focused on women’s rights — Amini was detained by morality police for attire deemed inappropriate under Iran’s Islamic dress code — but have also called for the fall of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The unrest has posed one of the boldest challenges to Iran’s clerical ruling elite since it came to power in the 1979 Islamic revolution, though authorities have crushed previous rounds of major protests.

Iran has blamed foreign foes and their agents for the unrest.

Iran has proof that Western nations were involved in protests that have swept the country, Kanaani said on Monday.

“We have specific information proving that the US, Western countries and some of the American allies have had a role in the protests,” he said, without giving details.

Iran has given no death toll for protesters, but a deputy foreign minister, Ali Bagheri Kani, has said that about 50 police had died and hundreds been injured in the unrest — the first official figure for deaths among security forces.

He did not say whether that figure also included deaths among other security forces such as the Revolutionary Guards.

Related


COP27 summit in Egypt missed chance for ambition on fossil fuels, critics say

Updated 28 November 2022

COP27 summit in Egypt missed chance for ambition on fossil fuels, critics say

  • Demands from environmental groups that governments should leave oil and gas in the ground have had less traction
  • The COP27 meeting this month yielded mixed results, with a hard-fought agreement for climate-vulnerable nations

Fossil fuel producers benefited from sympathetic treatment in Egypt at the COP27 climate talks, government officials said, bringing their influence to bear in rushed final negotiations and frustrating those who hoped for a more ambitious outcome.

Officials said the host Egypt, a natural gas exporter and frequent recipient of funds from Gulf oil producers, was partly responsible, although the war in Ukraine and the subsequent European energy crisis also had an impact.

Egyptian officials have said their priority was to provide a conducive atmosphere for negotiations and act as a neutral mediator. The presidency denied that fossil fuel producers had been given sympathetic treatment.

“The end decision at COP27 was a compilation of inputs reached by consensus of all the UNFCCC parties who were all consulted,” it said in a statement, referring to nearly 200 countries taking part in the summit under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Demands from environmental groups and scientists that governments and companies should leave oil and gas in the ground have had less traction this year, since European countries have scrambled to replace Russian gas.

The COP27 meeting yielded mixed results, with a hard-fought agreement on a fund for countries most harmed by climate change being welcomed by vulnerable nations, but a cover text that some officials said lacked ambition due to the influence of fossil fuel producers. The cover text summarises key outcomes of the summit.

“The cover decision and the mitigation work program does not fully reflect the urgency of the climate crisis and did indeed cater too much to the more fossil and backward-looking forces,” said Espen Barth Eide, Norway’s minister of climate and environment.

Some of the countries that had pushed hardest for the new fund for loss and damage simultaneously tried to weaken language around phasing down fossil fuels, he added.

LOW-EMISSION ENERGY

The COP27 agreements are in line with what came out of the Glasgow meeting last year, to accelerate “efforts toward the phasedown of unabated coal power and phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies,” rather than being strengthened to phasing down fossil fuels as some countries had pushed for.

It also included a new reference to “low emission and renewable energy.” The Egyptian presidency said the language reflected part of the “just transition” adopted by all parties, which includes the use of hydrogen and nuclear energy to reduce emissions.

Egypt’s COP27 President Sameh Shoukry acknowledged there had been “disappointment in certain quarters” but told reporters after the deal that “a single party cannot achieve all their ambition, and this does not take away from the value of what was reached.”

For some, the Egyptian presidency had delivered a satisfactory deal by forging the agreement to set up a loss and damage fund. The idea had been resisted for years by some of the largest emitters, such as the United States and Europe, who were worried about the extent of liabilities.

Loss and damage was “the one thing we wanted a lot for ages, and that being solved at a COP being hosted by a developing country, that in itself is a great win because it shows their diplomatic strength,” said Selamawit Wubet, an adviser to a group of countries highly vulnerable to climate change.

But climate activists and some delegates said little progress had been made on most other issues, contending that the tone had been set by fossil fuel producers who played a more public and prominent role in Sharm el-Sheikh than at previous summits.

‘DIFFICULT TRANSITION’

“It has now become quite clear that the transition away from fossil fuels is going to be a difficult one,” said Pakistan’s UN Ambassador Munir Akram, citing the impact of the war in Ukraine.

In the final 24 hours, the COP presidency held a meeting where calls from negotiators from countries and groups including Switzerland, the United States, Latin America and small island states, for Egypt to include language initially proposed by India to phase down all fossil fuels were unheeded, officials said. At least 80 countries supported such language, they said.

Some negotiators expressed concern that Egypt had advanced its proposal without thorough consultation, as major emitters and producers took a stand against more ambitious goals on limiting fossil fuel use.

The Egyptian presidency told Reuters the process was “praised by all parties for being focused and streamlined.”

“The issue of phasing down all fossil fuels was not agreed upon by many countries,” it said.

ALL NIGHT TALKS

Ahead of the final plenary meeting where a deal was struck just after 5:30 a.m. local time, a Reuters reporter saw some delegates caught off guard by the presidency’s last-minute announcement of the session. Guards had to wake up some delegates sleeping on couches and chairs outside the plenary hall after 3 a.m., instructing them to go inside.

“It was very rushed toward the end,” said Shauna Aminath, Maldives environment minister. “The normal procedure is that there would be more consultation and open dialogue on these things,” she said.

The European Union, which had threatened to walk out, fell reluctantly in line to preserve the deal on loss and damage.

Egypt will hold the COP presidency until it hands over to the United Arab Emirates, an ally and a major hydrocarbons producer, in just under a year.

“Holding COPs in petro-states may seem counterproductive but actually we can’t ignore these countries. They need to be engaged in the process and putting pressure on them as a COP host may provide bigger gains,” said Mohamed Adow, founder of think tank Power Shift Africa.