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Lebanon’s ‘Wonder Woman’ in hiding after bank heist | Features News

Beirut, Lebanon – Sali Hafiz has not seen her friend for a few days, not since Sali entered a bank with a replica gun in Beirut on September 14 demanding her own money, and instantly became famous across Lebanon, with her defiant image broadcast around the world.

The friend, who did not wish to be identified for security reasons, has brought a cake to Sali, who, while she was not arrested, is now in hiding.

The white frosting simply says, “Sali the hero”.

Sali’s sister Ekraam, who also held up the bank and is also in hiding, cuts the cake into slices and shares them around the room.

“I’ve lost five kilograms already”, Sali told Al Jazeera, one hand holding a plate with cake, the other holding her jeans away from her waist, showing how loose they have become. “It’s stress.”

Sali, 28, and her sister took a branch of Lebanon’s Blom bank by storm on September 14, armed with what she later said was a replica gun, demanding to take $20,000 in cash out of their own accounts.

Sali said that she did it to pay for her sister’s medical expenses and immediately became a symbol of the suffering and desperation many Lebanese are living under amid the country’s deep financial crisis.

Since 2019, banks have imposed severe restrictions on foreign currency withdrawals, forcing most withdrawals to be taken out in local currency, and at a rate much lower than market value. Effectively this means that, if people want to access their foreign currency accounts, they will lose a considerable amount of money every time they withdraw.

While she was not the first person to forcefully seize their money from the banks this year, Sali’s success opened up the floodgates, with at least five other depositors carrying out similar actions on September 16.

With authorities scrambling to react, and officials urging people to not copy the heists, the banks then announced that they would close for three days this week, with a plan to reportedly open on Thursday.

Sali, right, and Ekraam entered the BLOM bank branch in Beirut to demand money from their accounts so that they could pay for their younger sister Nanci’s cancer treatment [Mia Alberti/Al Jazeera]

‘We’re not criminals’

Like many middle-class Lebanese families, the Hafiz family lived comfortably before the country’s economic crisis.

When the financial collapse began, they could still get by, living from their savings and work.

But that changed when Sali’s younger sister, 22-year-old Nanci, was diagnosed with brain cancer seven months ago, and the family began selling their belongings after the bank denied their request to withdraw money to pay for Nanci’s $20,000 surgery.

“We are not criminals, we have the money, but [the banks] are stealing it,” Sali said.

With more money needed for Nanci’s treatment in Istanbul, and the bank once again denying a withdrawal request, Nanci asked Sali to take care of her children if she died.

“I said ‘I’m ready to die for you to get better and I promise you I’ll get you the money,’” Sali told Al  Jazeera.

The next day Sali entered the bank with the gun.

Sali and Ekraam still beam when they share details of the hold-up.

They left the bank with more than $13,000 and an official bank receipt.

Police quickly surrounded their house but left when Sali posted on Facebook that she was at the airport heading to Istanbul.

She said she then left Beirut, disguised as a pregnant woman.

Millions stolen

Ibrahim Abdallah was among the crowds cheering for Sali from outside the bank on September 14.

“We are not robbing, for us, we call it liberating our deposits because the banks are robbing us, they are robbing all of the Lebanese”, Abdallah told Al Jazeera.

Abdallah is a member of the Depositors Outcry Association, a group of activists protesting for the right to access their money, and which has helped organise some of the bank hold-ups.

Ibraheem Abdallah stares out at the Beirut skyline from his balcony
Ibrahim Abdallah says his bank has ‘robbed’ his money [Mia Alberti/Al Jazeera]

Abdallah said he has millions of dollars trapped in his account – savings from 17 years working as a senior sales manager in one of Dubai’s top companies.

He showed Al Jazeera pictures from his former life, posing with top government officials from Saudi Arabia, lavish houses and galas, and selfies with celebrities like Ivanka Trump.

Now, he lives on the $400 a month the bank allows him to withdraw, which he uses to support his two children and elderly parents.

“Both of my parents need continuous medicine and what [the bank] is giving me is not enough to buy medicine for my parents. It’s not enough to put petrol in my car, it’s not enough to pay electricity bills”, he said.

Lebanese financial institutions have said the restrictions are necessary as they simply do not have enough foreign currency to give account holders.

Abdallah confessed that he has also thought of holding up a bank, but that he decided not to carry it out as it was too risky.

His bank could close his account, as they have previously threatened to do, leaving him with a cheque worth millions, but that no other bank would be willing to cash, due to the same liquidity issues that keep accounts frozen.

“I’m ready if any country will take me, to leave Lebanon forever. I prefer to be a refugee in any other country. It’s better than being a refugee in my own country,” Abdallah told Al Jazeera.

Sali and her sister have taken refuge outside of Beirut, and are waiting for the authorities’ decision on Sali’s case before they can return.

They spend the day resting and picking apples from a nearby orchard.

Sali is worried about Nanci, who has not been able to start her treatment, as she is waiting for her passport to be renewed.

But she has no regrets.

“If I went back in time I’d do it again,” Sali said. “I had four options: commit suicide, work in a [morally] wrong way to get money, see my sister dying or go inside the bank. I decided to use the last solution,” she said.

Sali has seen the cartoons depicting her as a hero. One, shared many times on social media, shows her dressed as a Lebanese wonder woman, holding a sack with banknotes in one hand, while holding her sister – dressed in a hospital gown and head shaven – in the other.

“I wish everyone would become heroes, I wish everyone would do the same,” Sali said. “Many people are committing suicide because they are not able to help their relatives, I did the right thing, I got my rights and maybe that’s why they consider me as a hero.”



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International

Mexico’s $10bn lawsuit against US gun makers dismissed by judge | News

Mexico estimates that 2.2 percent of the nearly 40 million guns made annually in the US are smuggled across its border.

A US judge has dismissed Mexico’s $10bn lawsuit that sought to hold US gun manufacturers responsible for facilitating the flood of weapons that are smuggled across the US-Mexico border to drug cartels.

In its August 2021 complaint, Mexico estimated that 2.2 percent of the nearly 40 million guns made annually in the United States are smuggled into Mexico, including as many as 597,000 guns made by defendants named in the lawsuit.

Mexico said that in 2019 alone, at least 17,000 homicides were linked to trafficked weapons from the US.

“While the court has considerable sympathy for the people of Mexico, and none whatsoever for those who traffic guns to Mexican criminal organizations, it is duty-bound to follow the law,” Chief Judge F Dennis Saylor said in a 44-page decision announced in federal court in Boston on Friday.

Saylor said federal law “unequivocally” bars lawsuits seeking to hold gun manufacturers responsible when people use guns for their intended purpose. He said the law contained several narrow exceptions, but none applied.

The decision is a victory for gun makers Smith & Wesson Brands, Sturm, Ruger & Co, Barrett Firearms Manufacturing Inc, Colt’s Manufacturing Company LLC, Glock Inc, and others who were accused of undermining Mexico’s strict gun laws by designing, marketing, and selling military-style assault weapons that drug cartels use.

Mexico’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said it would appeal the decision “and continue insisting that the sale of guns be responsible, transparent and accountable, and that the negligent way in which they are sold in the United States facilitates criminals’ access to them”.

“This suit by the Mexican government has received worldwide recognition and has been considered a turning point in the discussion around the gun industry’s responsibility for the violence experience in Mexico and the region,” the ministry said.

Shielding gun makers from lawsuits

Mexico was seeking at least $10bn in compensation, but legal experts had viewed the lawsuit as a long shot.

The Mexican government had argued that the companies know their practices contribute to the trafficking of guns into Mexico and facilitate it. Mexico wanted compensation for the havoc the guns have wrought on its people.

A lawyer for Smith & Wesson declined to comment. Lawyers for Sturm, Ruger did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Mexico said gun smuggling has been a key factor in its ranking third worldwide in the number of gun-related deaths each year. It also claimed to suffer many other harms, including declining investment and economic activity and a need to spend more on law enforcement and public safety.

But the judge said Mexico could not overcome a provision in a US law – the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act – that shields gun makers from lawsuits over “the harm solely caused by the criminal or unlawful misuse of firearm products … by others when the product functioned as designed and intended”.

Mexico argued the US protection act did not apply when an injury occurred outside the United States.

Saylor did not agree.

“Mexico is seeking to hold defendants liable for practices that occurred within the United States and only resulted in harm in Mexico,” he wrote. “This case thus represents a valid domestic application of the PLCAA, and the presumption against extraterritoriality does not apply.”

The sale of firearms is severely restricted in Mexico and controlled by the Defence Department. But thousands of guns are smuggled into Mexico each year by the country’s powerful drug cartels.

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Small protests appear in Havana over islandwide blackout

HAVANA — The widespread power outage caused by Hurricane Ian prompted several hundred people to protest in Havana, and a monitoring group said the island’s internet service shut down again Friday in what appeared to be an attempt to curb information about the demonstrations from spreading.

An Associated Press journalist saw about 400 people gathered Thursday night in at least two spots in the Cerro neighborhood shouting, “We want light, we want light,” and banging pots and pans.

It appeared to be the first public display over the electricity problems that spread from western Cuba, where Ian hit on Tuesday, to the entire island, leaving the country’s 11 million people in the dark. The storm also left three people dead and caused still unquantified damage.

Power was restored to much of the island within a day after the storm’s blast. But there still areas without service, including in the capital.

Internet service was interrupted Thursday, then returned by Friday morning, at least in some areas. But it went out again later in the day, groups that monitor internet access reported.

Alp Toker, director of London-based Netblocks, said the blackout in internet service on Thursday and Friday appeared different from an internet outage that occurred soon after Ian hit.

“Internet has been cut again in Cuba, at around the same time as yesterday,” Toker said in an email to AP on Friday night. “The timings provide another indicator that the shutdowns are a measure to suppress coverage of the protests.”

Doug Madory, director of internet analysis at Kentik Inc., a network intelligence company, earlier described Thursday’s event as a “total internet blackout.”

Repeated blackouts on Cuba’s already fragile grid were among the causes of the island’s largest social protests in decades in July 2021. Thousands of people, weary of power failures and shortages of goods exacerbated by the pandemic and U.S. sanctions, turned out in cities across the island to vent their anger and some also lashed out at the government. Hundreds were arrested and prosecuted, prompting harsh criticism of the administration of President Miguel Diaz-Canel.

The government has not said what percentage of the overall population remained without electricity as of early Friday, but electrical authorities said only 10% of Havana’s 2 million people had power Thursday.

Experts said the total blackout showed the vulnerability of Cuba’s power grid and warned that it will require time and sources — things the country doesn’t have — to fix the problem.

Authorities have promised to work without rest to address the issue.

Calls by AP to a dozen people in Cuba’s main cities — Holguín, Guantánamo, Matanzas, Ciego de Ávila, Camagüey and Santiago — found problems similar to those in Havana, with most reporting their neighborhoods were still without electricity.

Authorities say the total blackout happened because of a failure in the connections between Cuba’s three regions — west, center and east — caused by Ian’s winds.

Cuba’s power grid “was already in a critical and immunocompromised state as a result of the deterioration of the thermoelectric plants. The patient is now on life support,” said Jorge Piñon, director of the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy’s Latin America and Caribbean program at the University of Texas.

Cuba has 13 power generation plants, eight of which are traditional thermoelectric plants, and five floating power plants rented from Turkey since 2019. There is also a group of small plants distributed throughout the country since an energy reform in 2006.

But the plants are poorly maintained, a phenomenon the government attributed to the lack of funds and U.S. sanctions. Complications in obtaining fuel is also a problem.

———

Andrea Rodríguez on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ARodriguezAP

———

Associated Press writer E. Eduardo Castillo contributed to this report from Mexico City.



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North Korea fires ballistic missiles in latest tests amid tension | News

Japanese official reported that the missiles travelled 400kms (250 miles) and at a maximum altitude of 50km (30 miles).

North Korea has fired two short-range ballistic missiles from the Pyongyang area towards the country’s east coast, according to South Korean and Japanese officials, marking Pyongyang’s fourth missile test launches in a week.

Japan’s NHK national television said multiple missiles were fired from North Korea on Saturday morning and were believed to have landed in the Sea of Japan though outside of Japan’s exclusive economic zone.

“What appears to be a ballistic missile was launched from North Korea,” the Japanese coast guard said in a statement issued at 6:47 am (21:47 GMT) local time on Saturday.

In a second statement issued about 15 minutes later, the coast guard said another apparent ballistic missile was launched.

NHK said the projectiles seemed to have fallen outside Japan’s exclusive economic zones, citing government sources.

The office of Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida tweeted that the latest missile launch was being analysed and instructions issued for the safety of people, aircraft and vessels.

North Korea fired short-range ballistic missiles into the sea on Wednesday and Thursday in the hours before and after a visit by US Vice President Kamala Harris to South Korea during which she emphasised the “ironclad” US commitment to the security of its Asian allies.

The latest launch also follows after the navies of South Korea, the United States and Japan staged trilateral anti-submarine exercises on Friday for the first time in five years.

Japan’s Vice Defence Minister Toshiro Ino said North Korea’s repeated missile firings are “persistently escalating provocations”.

“North Korea’s actions threaten the peace and safety not only for Japan but also the region and the international community, and are absolutely impermissible,” Ino said, calling the four launches in one week “unprecedented”.

The missiles rose to a maximum altitude of 50km (30 miles) and flew as far as 400km (250 miles) before landing in the Sea of Japan in areas outside of Japan’s exclusive economic zone, Ino said.

The missiles may have been on “irregular” trajectory, which makes tracking more difficult.

North Korea has conducted a record number of weapons tests this year and analysts see the increased pace of testing as an effort to build its ballistic weapons capacity, as well as to take advantage of a world distracted by the Ukraine conflict and other crises.

Nuclear tests and ballistic missile launches by North Korea have long been banned by the United Nations Security Council.

“Despite North Korea’s internal weaknesses and international isolation, it is rapidly modernising weapons and taking advantage of a world divided by US-China rivalry and Russia’s annexation of more Ukrainian territory,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.

A South Korean legislator said on Wednesday that the North has completed preparations for a nuclear test, and a window for such a test could open between China’s party congress in October and the US mid-term elections in November.



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