BEIRUT: When a Lebanese bank told Aref Yassin it had closed accounts worth US$20 million belonging to the professional syndicate he heads and issued a cheque for the balance that was worth a fifth of its face value, he took the matter to court.
The money, saved from engineers' subscriptions and deposited at Fransabank, was earmarked for healthcare and pensions covered by the syndicate for about 100,000 people who now face losing a lifeline in a country in the third year of an economic meltdown.
"Retrieving the syndicate's money stuck at the banks has become a matter of life or death for engineers," Yassin said, adding some beneficiaries needed cash for life-saving treatment.
Fransabank said banking secrecy rules meant the bank could not disclose information about a client.
Lebanon's ruling elite have so far failed to come up with a recovery plan to address Lebanon's financial meltdown that erupted in late 2019 - and the crisis is now increasingly playing out in the courts between depositors and banks.
Fearing for their life savings, more account holders are suing banks, hoping to get their cash. And, in response, more banks have been closing accounts and issuing cheques for the balance without consulting clients, lawyers acting for depositors say.
Ruling politicians have yet to agree on how to deal with the financial system's huge losses incurred when the economy collapsed under a mountain of debt built up from decades of corruption, sectarian patronage and mismanagement.
Nor have they passed a capital control law to deal with what the World Bank calls one of the world's worst financial crashes on record. Such a law would help ensure savers are treated fairly and stop what funds are left bleeding out of the country.
More than US$100 billion remains trapped in Lebanese banks which lent to the state - and court battles to access any cash still left in the banking system are gathering pace.
In one of the most high-profile cases, a court in London ruled in favour of a saver seeking $4 million deposited with Bank Audi and its peer SGBL.
"THEY DON'T WANT TO PAY"
Banks, which have called for a capital control law, say the London ruling means there is now less cash left for less well-off depositors who cannot afford to bring such action.
But small depositors have already been hit hardest, said Fouad Debs, co-founder of the Depositors Union, which groups lawyers and activists.
The union has filed around 300 suits on behalf of savers in Lebanon and abroad since 2019. They include cases to request transfers of funds and to reopen closed accounts. But only a dozen cases had concluded in favour of depositors, he said.
"They are simply closing peoples accounts because they don't want to pay people their money back - and they are doing it more and more because they've seen that no regulatory body is standing against them," Debs said.
The government is showing increasing concern about rulings supporting depositors and about other court orders freezing assets of some of Lebanon's biggest banks while a judge probes their transactions with the central bank.
"We should not celebrate the freezes on the banks and the actions that are happening," Prime Minister Najib Mikati said, adding that "nothing will remain" for smaller depositors if wealthy depositors were given back their cash.
Many savers accuse Lebanon's ruling elite of doing more to protect the wealthy and the banks, some of which have senior politicians as shareholders, than small account holders.
"Elite people are always transferring money out," said Dana Trometer, a 48-year-old filmmaker who lives in Britain, adding that "normal people" were not getting the same treatment.
"IT'S NOT FAIR"
Although most savers cannot access their cash, the lack of a capital control law means there is no legal reason stopping transfers. A source with knowledge of the matter said some banks had transferred money for politicians and their allies.
The Association of Banks in Lebanon did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Banks have said they have sought to treat all depositors fairly and have limited most transfers to essential needs, such as schooling and healthcare.
Trometer filed a lawsuit two years ago in Lebanon to access her mother's trapped retirement savings, without success.
"It's not fair," Trometer said, adding that her mother "can't even get a penny out of the bank to help her through every day, just buying every day essentials".
Lawyer Ali Zbeeb said the accelerated rate of account closures by banks may have been prompted by the London ruling in favour of British businessman Vatche Manoukian, whom he advised.
"Banks may therefore be aiming to prevent a similar situation by pre-emptively closing accounts," Zbeeb said.
Debs of the Depositors' Union said more than 50 British savers had been in touch since the ruling because their accounts had been unilaterally closed, or they feared their closure.
Most had accounts with Blom Bank and Bank Audi, he said.
Blom Bank legal counsel said the bank had closed some accounts held by Lebanese and foreign citizens during the crisis and said the contract signed by clients granted the bank the right to unilaterally close accounts with no prior notice.
Some of the closed accounts were held by British citizens or residents and some were closed since the London ruling, the bank said.
Bank Audi, which had no comment for this report, said after the London ruling that it was asking UK residents to apply terms applicable to anyone opening a new account, meaning no international transfers and no cash withdrawals. If this was not accepted, the bank said it would close the account.
Karim Daher, head of the Beirut Bar Association's Commission for Depositors Rights, said he had received regular calls from distraught savers struggling to access just part of their cash.
"These people have put money aside for retirement, to send children to school and university," he said. "It's a catastrophic situation."