Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 June 2019

Freed Nizar Zakka blasts 'sham' trial in Iran

The Lebanese national had been jailed for almost four years on espionage charges

Freed Lebanese national and US permanent resident Nizar Zakka has criticised the “the false charges and sham trial” which he was subjected to in Iran.

Mr Zakka arrived at Rafic International Airport in Beirut on Tuesday afternoon, after being released from four years in prison on espionage charges.

On his arrival, Mr Zakka went straight to the presidential palace in Baabda, just outside Beirut.

Mr Zakka left Tehran on a private jet in the early afternoon with Maj Gen Abbas Ibrahim, head of Lebanese General Security and special envoy to Iran, who travelled to the Iranian capital on Sunday.

After a short meeting with Lebanese President Michel Aoun, Mr Zakka told the state-run National News Agency that there were no grounds to Iranian accusations of his being a US spy.

“I will not delve into the details of the kidnapping, the arrest, the false charges and the sham trial," he said.

“I am still steadfast nationalist and I stand with my head raised. Nothing has changed except for an increase of my interest in freedom of expression and access to the internet."

Mr Zakka received a congratulatory phone call from Gebran Bassil, Lebanon's Minister of Foreign Affairs, and later met Prime minister Saad Hariri.

He said Lebanese authorities negotiated directly Iranian officials to secure his release and that no other party was involved.

A report published by Iran’s semi-official Fars agency on Monday said Mr Zakka would be handed over to Hezbollah, the Tehran-backed militant group, rather than Gen Ibrahim.

"The move will take place in the next few hours. This is done solely because of the respect for and dignity of [Hezbollah leader] Hassan Nasrallah," a source told Fars.

The Hezbollah office in Beirut refused to comment.

Speaking alongside Mr Zakka in Baabda on Tuesday, Gen Ibrahim said he had read the report and that there was no truth to it.

He repeated several times that the release was due to the intervention of Mr Aoun.

“Hezbollah played a role but the foundation was a request from President Aoun," Gen Ibrahim said.

“From the moment of my arrival in Tehran, all doors were open to me because I was the president’s envoy.".

The contradictory statements point to a tussle in Iran over Mr Zakka's release, a source said.

“The Fars report was addressed to the Iranian public," the source said. “There is some debate in Iran about whether Zakka should be released without any compensation."

Holly Dagres of the Atlantic Council told The National that the release came after years of “relative silence” from Beirut.

“Suddenly, news emerges that he’s being released to Lebanese government officials," Ms Dagres said. "There’s certainly something at play behind the scenes."

In comments that did not seem to exonerate Mr Zakka of Iranian accusations, Gen Ibrahim said: “What is important to us is to be able to return any citizen or person carrying Lebanese citizenship from anywhere in the world, even though they breached the law of the country they were living in."

Iran exerts considerable influence on Lebanese politics through Hezbollah, the only militia that was allowed to keep its weapons after the end of the civil war in 1990.

Its detractors accuse the militia of having become a “state within a state”. Thousands of Hezbollah’s men are fighting in neighbouring Syria to support President Bashar Al Assad.

General Security published several pictures on Twitter of Mr Zakka and Gen Ibrahim in the past two days, signalling his imminent return to Lebanon.

On Tuesday morning, an Iranian judiciary official confirmed for the first time that Mr Zakka would be allowed to return to his country.

“A court has accepted the condition of freedom of Nizar Zakka and he will be handed over to Lebanese officials," Gholamhossein Esmaili told the judiciary’s Mizan news agency.

Mr Zakka, an internet freedom advocate who used to live in Washington, was arrested in September 2015 while trying to fly out of Tehran.

He had just attended a conference there on the invitation of one of the country’s vice presidents.

Shortly after he was detained, he was charged with espionage, sentenced to 10 years in prison and given a $4.2 million (Dh15.4m) fine. Iranian media has described him as a US spy.

Mr Zakka was held in the notorious Evin prison, used to house political dissidents and foreign hostages.

He has worked for US technology and telecoms giants such as Cisco and Microsoft, but has also had contracts with USAid, the American government development agency.

The US State Department said he was being held unjustly and called for his release in 2016.

The source said that negotiations to secure Mr Zakka’s release picked up early in May, when Mr Bassil asked the Iranian ambassador to Lebanon, Mohammad Firouznia, for a special amnesty during Eid Al Fitr.

“The ambassador transferred the message to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif, and the answer was positive,” said the source.

On May 11, Mr Aoun handed over a written letter to Mr Firouznia to be delivered to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, repeating Lebanon’s request for Mr Zakka to be freed at the end of Ramadan, the source said.

Early in June, Iran announced that Mr Zakka would be released.

“Nizar Zakka, like many other dual or foreign nationals held in Iran, is a political pawn," Ms Dagres said.

“It’s worth noting that Zakka’s release comes just before Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Iran.

"Abe has reportedly been asked by US President Donald Trump to mediate talks between Tehran and Washington.

“This doesn’t mean Abe directly intervened for Zakka’s release, but that perhaps this was a signal from Tehran that they were ready to start negotiating over issues such as hostages."

Updated: June 12, 2019 12:17 PM

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