Instant folk hero: Lebanese woman who stole own savings says she’s not the criminal

Sali Hafiz, in green shoes, held up a Beirut branch of BLOM Bank last week, taking by force some $13,000 in savings in her sister’s account frozen by capital controls. (AFP)
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Updated 21 September 2022

Instant folk hero: Lebanese woman who stole own savings says she’s not the criminal

  • Sali Hafiz, who held up Beirut bank, decries ‘country of mafias’
  • She was the first of at least seven savers who held up banks last week

BEKAA VALLEY, Lebanon: On the run from authorities after forcing a bank to release her family savings at gunpoint to treat her cancer-stricken sister, 28-year-old Lebanese interior designer Sali Hafiz insists she is not the criminal.
“We are in the country of mafias. If you are not a wolf, the wolves will eat you,” she said, standing on a dirt track somewhere in Lebanon’s rugged eastern Bekaa valley where she has since been in hiding.
Hafiz held up a Beirut branch of BLOM Bank last week, taking by force some $13,000 in savings in her sister’s account frozen by capital controls that were imposed overnight by commercial banks in 2019 but never made legal via legislation.
Dramatic footage of the incident, in which she cocks what later turned out to be a toy gun and stands atop a desk bossing around employees who hand her wads of cash, turned her into an instant folk hero in a country where hundreds of thousands of people are locked out of their savings.
A growing number are taking matters into their own hands, exasperated by a three-year financial implosion that authorities have left to fester — leading the World Bank to describe it as “orchestrated by the country’s elite.”
Hafiz was the first of at least seven savers who held up banks last week, prompting banks to shut their doors citing security concerns, and call for security support from the government.
George Hajj of the bank employees syndicate said the holdups were misguiding anger that should be directed at the Lebanese state, which was most to blame for the crisis, and noted some 6,000 bank employees had lost their jobs since it began.
Authorities have condemned the holdups and say they are preparing a security plan for banks.
But depositors argue that bank owners and shareholders have enriched themselves by getting high interest payments for lending the government depositors’ money and are prioritising the banks over people rather than enacting an IMF rescue plan.
The government says it is working hard to implement IMF reforms and aims to secure a $3 billion bailout this year.
The series of raids have been met with widespread support, including from crowds that gather outside the banks when they hear a holdup is taking place to cheer them on.
“Maybe they saw me as a hero because I was the first woman who does this in a patriarchal society where a woman’s voice is not supposed to be heard,” Hafiz said, adding she had not intended to harm anyone but was tired of government inaction.
“They are all in cahoots to steal from us and leave us to go hungry and die slowly,” she said.
When her sister began losing hope she would be able to afford costly treatment to help regain mobility and speech impaired by brain cancer, and the bank declined to provide the savings, Hafiz said she decided to act.
BLOM Bank said in a statement that the branch had been cooperative with her request for funds but asked for documentation as they do for all customers requesting humanitarian exceptions to the informal controls.
Hafiz then returned two days later with a toy gun she had seen her nephews playing with, and a small amount of fuel that she mixed with water and spilled on to an employee.
Before her raid, she watched popular Egyptian black comedy Irhab w Kabab — or “Terrorist and Kabab” — in which a man frustrated with government corruption holds up a state building and demands kebabs for the hostages due to the high price of meat.
She managed to get $13,000 of a total $20,000 — enough to cover travel expenses for her sister and about a month of treatment — and made sure to sign a receipt so that she would not be accused of theft.
To aid her escape, Hafiz posted on Facebook that she was already at the airport and on her way to Istanbul. She ran home and disguised herself in a robe and headscarf and placed a bundle of clothes on her belly to make herself appear pregnant.
A police officer who knocked on her door “must have been scared I would give birth in front of him. I went downstairs in front of them all, like 60 or 70 people... they were wishing me luck with the birth. It was... like the movies,” she said, after they failed to recognize her.
Two of Hafiz’s close friends with her at the bank hold up were detained after the incident over charges of threatening bank employees and holding them against their will, and ordered released on bail on Wednesday.
Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces did not respond to a request for comment on the case.
Hafiz said she would hand herself in once judges end a crippling strike that has slowed legal procedures and left detainees languishing in jail.
Abdallah Al-Saii, an acquaintance of Hafiz who held up a bank in January to get some $50,000 of his own savings, said more hold-ups were coming.
“Things will have to get worse so that they can get better,” Saii said, taking drags from a cigarette at his convenience store in the Bekaa.
“When the state can’t do anything for you and can’t even provide a tiny bit of hope over what lies in store, then we’re living by the law of the jungle.”


World Cup frenzy puts strain on Qatar’s camels

Updated 16 sec ago

World Cup frenzy puts strain on Qatar’s camels

  • World Cup fans coming in droves want perfect Instagram moment, riding a camel in the desert
  • Since the World Cup started, the animals are taken for 15 to 20, even 40 rides, without a break

MESAIEED, Qatar: Shaheen stretched out on the sand and closed his eyes, but there was little time to rest for the camel. World Cup fans coming in droves to the desert outside Doha were ready for their perfect Instagram moment: riding a camel on the rolling dunes.

As Qatar welcomes more than a million fans for the monthlong World Cup, even its camels are working overtime. Visitors in numbers the tiny emirate has never before seen are rushing to finish a bucket list of Gulf tourist experiences between games: ride on a camel’s back, take pictures with falcons and wander through the alleyways of traditional markets.

On a recent Friday afternoon, hundreds of visitors in soccer uniforms or draped in flags waited for their turn to mount the humpbacked animals. Camels that did not rise were forced up by their handlers. When one camel let out a loud grunt, a woman from Australia shrieked, “it sounds like they’re being violated!” Nearby, a group of men from Mexico dressed in white Qatari thobes and headdresses took selfies.

“It’s really an amazing feeling because you feel so tall,” 28-year-old Juan Gaul said after his ride. The Argentine fan was visiting Qatar for a week from Australia.

Cashing in on the opportunity are the animals’ handlers who, thanks to the World Cup, are making several times more than they normally would.

“There’s a lot of money coming in,” said Ali Jaber al Ali, a 49 year-old Bedouin camel herder from Sudan. “Thank god, but it’s a lot of pressure.”

Al Ali came to Qatar 15 years ago but has worked with camels since he was a child. On an average weekday before the World Cup, Al Ali said his company would offer around 20 rides per day and 50 on weekends. Since the World Cup started, Al Ali and the men he works with are providing 500 rides in the morning and another 500 in the evening. The company went from having 15 camels to 60, he said.

“Tour guides want to move things fast,” Al Ali said, “so they add pressure on us.”

As crowds formed around them, many camels sat statue-like with cloth muzzles covering their mouths and bright saddles on their bodies. The smell of dung filled the air.

Like other Gulf cultures, camels once provided Qataris a vital form of transport and helped in the exploration and development of trade routes. Today, the ungulates figure into cultural pastimes: camel racing is a popular sport that takes place on old-school tracks outside the city.

Al Ali said he knows when an animal is tired — usually if it refuses to get up or sits back down after rising to its feet. He can identify each camel by its facial features.

“I am a Bedouin. I come from a family of Bedouins who care for camels. I grew up loving them,” Al Ali said.

But the sudden rise in tourists means there’s less time to rest between rides, he said. A short ride lasts just 10 minutes while longer ones run 20 to 30 minutes long.

Normally, Al Ali said a camel can rest after five rides. “Now, people are saying we can’t wait ... because they have other plans they need to go to in the middle of the desert,” he said.

Since the World Cup started, the animals are taken for 15 to 20 — sometimes even 40 rides — without a break.

Al Ali’s day starts around 4:30 a.m., when he feeds the animals and gets them ready for customers. Some tourists have been arriving at dawn, he said, hoping to get the perfect sunrise shot, “so we have to work with them and take photos for them.”

From midday until 2 p.m, both handlers and camels rest, he said. “Then we start getting ready for the afternoon battle.”

But not every visitor has been taken by the experience.

Pablo Corigliano, a 47 year-old real estate agent from Buenos Aires, said he was hoping for something more authentic. The excursions start on a stretch of desert by the side of a highway, not far from the industrial city of Mesaieed and its vast oil refineries.

“I was expecting something more wild,” said Corigliano. “I thought I would be crossing the desert, but when I arrived, I saw a typical tourist point.”

Soon after, Corigliano and a group of friends looked for a dune buggy to race into the desert.


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.

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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.

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