Lebanese expats return to Miami after being held in Beirut

Dispute over inheritance turns into life-threatening detention overseas

By Christian De La Rosa - Reporter, Ian Margol - Reporter, Andrea Torres - Digital Reporter/Producer

MIAMI-DADE COUNTY, Fla. - After being held behind bars in Beirut for more than a week, a pair of Lebanese expatriates from South Florida were relieved Friday when they arrived at Miami International Airport. 

Attorney Lorne Berkeley was waiting for them with open arms. The ordeal for Lara Samaha began when her father died in Lebanon. She said he left a will leaving her a multimillion-dollar inheritance.

Samaha said she has relatives in Lebanon who are preventing her from claiming the inheritance, so she decided to file lawsuits in Lebanon and in the Southern District of Florida.

"They were told that they should come back to the country and that they wanted to resolve the lawsuit," Berkeley said. 

Samaha and her husband, Ellie Samaha, decided to travel to Lebanon, but what they didn't know was that her relatives had persuaded authorities in Lebanon to charge them with defamation and there was a warrant out for their arrest. 

Berkeley, who has an office in Coral Gables, said that as soon as Ellie and Lara Samaha arrived in Lebanon, they were "held hostage" for over a week. They said officials there threatened them to force them to drop their lawsuits. 

"They tried to kill us," Lara Samaha said. "They put a knife on us." 

Their son, Sandro Samaha, said that he couldn't contact them and he feared that their relatives were using corrupt officials in Lebanon to hurt his parents. He said he felt hopeless. Ellie Samaha, who is a U.S. citizen, said he felt powerless during his detention. 

"We were underground," Ellie Samaha said. "We couldn’t see any light."

Lebanese authorities freed them this week and allowed them to return to the United States. Ellie Samaha said he was very grateful for the work the U.S. embassy and the U.S. State Department had done to free them. Lara Samaha said she was also grateful for Berkeley. 

"They forced me to sign everything, to dismiss everything," Lara Samaha said. 

Berkeley said his work with the Samaha family is not done. They do not want to give up their fight for what is rightfully Samaha's, and he said he is going to figure out a way to help them. 

Although it's not the case in Beirut, there are areas in Lebanon where women still don't have property rights. This is still preventing women to inherit property in some communities. The State Department issued a travel advisory April 9 warning of a kidnapping risk in Lebanon. 

"Family, neighborhood, or sectarian disputes can escalate quickly and can lead to gunfire or other violence with no warning," the travel advisory says. 

Ellie and Lara Samaha said they are feeling grateful to be back home. 

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