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Lebanon’s angry depositors demand their money back from banks

Bank depositors staged a sit-in in Beirut to protest the banks' illegal policies imposed on their deposits amid a stifling economic crisis.
Retired servicemen clash with soldiers outside Lebanon's central bank during a demonstration demanding inflation adjustments to their pensions, Beirut, Lebanon, March 30, 2023.

BEIRUT — A number of angry bank depositors staged a sit-in on Tuesday in front of parliament in Beirut, in the latest move against the country’s deteriorating financial situation.

The protest comes in response to a call made last week by the Depositors' Outcry Association, a local group defending the rights of bank depositors, to protest against the state’s current financial policies and to demand the recovery of their deposits.

Dozens of protesters marched from the Beirut municipality building toward parliament. Some burned tyres and blocked the roads around parliament amid heavy deployment of the army and security forces. Another group of depositors attempted to storm a branch of Bank Audi in the area and smashed the bank’s ATM. Some injuries were reported amid clashes with security forces.

The local LBCI channel reported that some protesters gathered in front of caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s house in Beirut and tried to cut the barbed wire around the building amid heavy security deployment.

“We want parliamentarians to assume their responsibilities,” one of the protesters told the crowd in front of parliament. “We will continue to fight for our rights to our deposits.”

Lebanon has been grappling with its worst economic crisis in decades since October 2019. Back then, massive anti-government protests erupted across the nation against decades of corruption and economic mismanagement. Many Lebanese blame the political elite that has been ruling the country since the civil war (1975-1990) for the financial collapse and lack of any action to address the crisis.

The Lebanese people, who have been locked out of their deposits for nearly four years, are struggling to make ends meet amid skyrocketing prices of goods, regular power shortages, and lack of medicine and fuel, among many other issues. Meanwhile, the local currency has lost more than 90% of its value, sending more than half of the population below the poverty line. Angry protesters have repeatedly stormed banks in the last few years, while several depositors resorted to armed heists in a bid to recover their money held up in banks.

Lebanese banks have been imposing informal capital controls and severely limiting cash withdrawals, claiming lack of liquidity.

In a letter drafted in March, the Association of Banks of Lebanon said that commercial banks had around $86.6 billion deposited at the central bank as of mid-February, and a net negative position with correspondent banks of $204 million as of Jan. 31, 2023.

“These numbers show without a doubt that the banks have no liquidity,” the association’s secretary-general Fadi Khalaf wrote.

The banks blame the central bank and its policies for the financial crisis. Politicians have also failed to address the financial meltdown by enacting urgent reforms and a recovery plan to return deposits to citizens.

The International Monetary Fund warned in March that Lebanon is facing a “very dangerous situation,” adding that the implementation of reforms required to unlock an aid package was “very slow.”

Meanwhile, Central Bank Gov. Riad Salameh is being probed for his alleged role in the country’s financial collapse. He was charged with embezzlement, money laundering, illicit enrichment, fraud and tax evasion in a domestic probe. European investigators are also questioning Salameh and his associates in a separate case concerning the embezzlement of more than $300 million in money transfers abroad. Last week, the delegation questioned the country’s finance minister over his alleged role in covering up the financial crimes of Salameh during his tenure as head of financial operations at the central bank. 

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