Authorities release Beirut gunman after bank drops charges


Lebanon’s state prosecutor released a man Tuesday who held 10 people hostage in a bank at gunpoint while demanding funds from his blocked savings account.

In a case that has drawn national attention, food delivery driver Bassam al-Sheikh Hussein, 42, fired three warning shots from a shotgun last Thursday at a Federal Bank branch in Beirut. He threatened to douse himself with gasoline and set himself on fire if the bank did not allow him to withdraw the $210,000 he had saved to pay 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 locked himself in the bank and held 10 people hostage for about seven hours. Dozens of protesters gathered around the bank to support him, as soldiers and riot police cordoned off the area. Nobody was hurt.

Since 2019, cash-strapped Lebanese banks have imposed strict limits on foreign exchange withdrawals, tying up the savings of millions of people. About three quarters of the population have fallen into poverty, while the economy of the small Mediterranean country continues to spiral.

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

The bank’s lawyer declined to discuss the details of the agreement reached with Hussein that allowed him to withdraw part of his savings last week.

Hussein had been in preventive detention after the Federal Bank filed charges. Judicial officials told the AP that Hussein was detained because he took people hostage and threatened them 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 the AP.

“I am very happy for his release. He stayed strong all this time,” Atef said.

A photo of Hussein with his bedridden father surfaced on social media moments after he arrived home.

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

In the court decision obtained by the AP, state prosecutor Ghassan Ouweidat said the Federal Bank had dropped the charges against Hussein and the gunman was free to go. However, Hussein had to record his address and is subject to being summoned for further questioning.

A person close to the case said there could also be a temporary travel ban.

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

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

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

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

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

The international community has demanded that Lebanon reform its economy and combat rampant corruption. Bailout talks with the International Monetary Fund have made slow progress as parliament prepares IMF-mandated legislation, including laws on capital controls and those targeting money laundering.

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