Officials release Beirut shooter after bank drops charges

BEIRUT — The Lebanese prosecutor on Tuesday released a man who had held up to 10 people hostage at gunpoint in a bank while demanding money from his blocked savings account.

In a case that has attracted national attention, 42-year-old food delivery man Bassam al-Sheikh Hussein fired three warning shots with a shotgun at a branch of the Federal Bank in Beirut last Thursday. He threatened to douse himself with gasoline and set himself on fire if the bank wouldn’t let him withdraw his $210,000 in savings for his father’s medical bills and other expenses.

Hussein was released after he went on a hunger strike and the bank dropped the charges against him.

Hussein had locked himself in the bank and held up to ten people hostage for about seven hours. Dozens of protesters gathered around the bank to support it, while soldiers and riot police cordoned off the area. No one was injured.

Lebanon’s cramped banks have imposed strict limits on foreign currency withdrawals since 2019, trapping the savings of millions. About three quarters of the population has fallen into poverty, while the economy of the small Mediterranean country continues to run.

After hours of negotiations, Hussein and officers agreed that the bank would release $35,000 of his savings while he and his brother would be briefly interrogated at the headquarters of the internal security forces in the Lebanese capital. Hussein’s lawyers said his family had received the money.

The bank’s lawyer declined to discuss details of the settlement reached with Hussein, which allowed him to withdraw some of his savings last week.

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Hussein was held in police custody after the Federal Bank filed suit. Judicial officials told the AP that Hussein was being held for taking people hostage and threatening people with weapons.

Hussein’s brother Atef said Hussein went on a hunger strike to protest the turn of events. Bassam is now home and “exhausted,” his brother told AP.

“I’m very happy with his release. He stayed strong the whole time,” Atef said.

A photo of Hussein with his bedridden father surfaced on social media shortly after returning home.

A small group of protesters had gathered outside the courthouse earlier Tuesday, temporarily closing the main road to traffic. They chanted slogans calling for Hussein’s release.

In the court ruling obtained by the AP, prosecutor Ghassan Ouweidat said the Federal Bank had dropped its charges against Hussein and the gunman was free to go. However, Hussein had to register his address and is subject to a subpoena for further questioning.

A person close to the case said there may also be a temporary travel ban in place.

The state has yet to drop charges against Hussein, whose actions could earn him up to two years in prison.

Fouad Debs, an attorney with the legal and advocacy group the Depositors’ Union and one of Hussein’s representatives, said the Federal Bank has failed to meet its obligations to allow Hussein to withdraw up to $400 a month under the guidelines of the Federal Reserve. central bank of Lebanon.

“Bassam has been asking for it for the past four months,” Debs said.

Hussein has been hailed as a hero by many in the country and observers have speculated that the incident may inspire copycats.

In January, a coffee shop owner withdrew $50,000 locked up in a bank in eastern Lebanon after taking employees hostage and threatening to kill them. He was released two weeks later.

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The international community has demanded Lebanon to reform its economy and fight rampant corruption. Talks about a bailout with the International Monetary Fund are slow as parliament prepares legislation demanded by the IMF, including laws on capital controls and laws targeting money laundering.

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