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Who Will Speak for Nizar Zakka, Iran's Lebanese Hostage?

September 23, 2016
Roland Elliott Brown
6 min read
ICT expert Nizar Zakka was arrested in September 2015 after speaking at a conference
ICT expert Nizar Zakka was arrested in September 2015 after speaking at a conference
Vice President for Women and Women's Affairs Shahindokht Molaverdi invited Zakka to speak at a conference in Iran in autumn 2015
Vice President for Women and Women's Affairs Shahindokht Molaverdi invited Zakka to speak at a conference in Iran in autumn 2015
Is Zakka’s detention part of an attempt to damage President Rouhani's leverage on the international stage?
Is Zakka’s detention part of an attempt to damage President Rouhani's leverage on the international stage?
Judge Abolghasem Salavati ruled in Zakka's case
Judge Abolghasem Salavati ruled in Zakka's case
The Iranian government's invitation to Nizar Zakka
The Iranian government's invitation to Nizar Zakka
  • Lebanese citizen and US resident Nizar Zakka has been sentenced to 10 years in prison in Iran after he visited the country to lecture on information and communication technology. He has also been ordered to pay a $4.2 million fine.
  • Judge Abolghassem Salavati, who sentenced Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian last year, is believed to have heard Zakka's case. Salavati often presides over high profile "security" cases.
  • Although Zakka is not a US citizen, US-based advocacy groups hope the US State department will help secure his release.

On Monday September 19, a closed court in Tehran sentenced Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese citizen and US resident, to 10 years in prison. It also ordered him to pay a $4.2 million fine. The move marks a grim new chapter in Zakka’s ordeal, which began last September. 

Last year, Shahindokht Molaverdi, Iran’s vice president for women and family affairs, invited Zakka to Iran to attend the Second International Conference and Exhibition on Women and Sustainable Development. The event took place in Tehran from September 15-18. 

Zakka, an expert in information and communication technology (ICT), attended and gave a lecture entitled “ICT for Women’s Empowerment.” But when he left for the airport on September 18, security officials arrested him. 

Iranian authorities did not announce Zakka’s arrest, but two months later, Iranian State TV ran a program accusing him of being an American spy.

Zakka went through a hellish experience at the hands of Iran’s security officials. “For a period of six months he was in solitary confinement,” says David Ramadan, a former member of the Virginia House of Delegates who co-founded the advocacy group Friends of Nizar Zakka. “He did not receive any of the medical treatment he needed, and he lost an incredible amount of weight. He has not been allowed to see either the Lebanese consul in Iran, since he is a Lebanese citizen, or the Swiss consulate which handles American affairs in Iran.”

Nor did Zakka face an ordinary trial. Judge Abolghassem Salavati of the Tehran Revolutionary Court, who routinely presides over high profile “security” cases, reportedly heard his case. Salavati is perhaps best know as the judge who sentenced Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian last year, before Rezaian and other captive Americans were freed in a prisoner swap with the United States.  

“If they had anything against him, they would have made it public,” says Roya Boroumand of the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based human rights group. “What Salavati’s role tells us about the case is that there is not enough evidence to convict Zakka, and therefore they needed a judge who doesn't need evidence to convict. Salavati handles political cases that are difficult, but where the result is pre-determined.” Zakka, she says, should have a public trial where the charges and the evidence against him are made clear. “Short of that, he is a hostage.”  

Ramadan says Iran’s claim that Zakka is a spy is “an absolute lie.” If Iran had such a concern, he says, there was no reason for Molaverdi to invite him to speak at a conference. “His work was known to the Iranians, it was done publicly, there was nothing covert about it, he had travelled to Iran four times prior to this trip. He believed it was welcome work. There was nothing nefarious here.”

But according to a Friends of Nizar Zakka press release, Zakka’s trip to Iran was funded by the US State Department. While Zakka typically funded his projects though a variety of private and state grants, this US connection alone could very well have made him a target. 

“His arrest may be a message to the US,” Boroumand says. “The message could be, ‘Don't think that because we are having an agreement with you and things are changing that you are welcome here.’”

Zakka’s arrest came just two months after Iran had signed a major agreement with the US and five other countries over its nuclear program. 

Alternatively, Zakka’s detention may reflect internal rivalries within Iran’s political system. Iran’s nominal moderates and reformers, such as President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, have long enjoyed much greater leverage on the international stage than their more conservative colleagues. Molaverdi, who invited Zakka, is a member of Rouhani’s cabinet. 

“It seems like [Zakka’s arrest] may have been an effort [on the part of security forces] not to let one faction of the ruling elite be well-connected at the expense of another faction,” Boroumand says. 

Yet while Zakka’s case follows a pattern recognizable from the cases of other dual citizens who have been detained in Iran, such as US-Iranian citizen Siamak and his father Baquer Namazi, or British-Iranian charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, it also has two uniquely foreboding features.

The first is the highly unusual multi-million dollar fine, which, Boroumand says, suggests that Iran may prove unwilling to release Zakka, or may wish to pressure him into acting on its behalf in some way. Zakka’s family, Ramadan says, has yet to see any court document pertaining to the large fine.

The second is that, as a Lebanese citizen, Zakka can expect little help from his own government, since Iran wields considerable political influence in Lebanon through its support for the Shia militant and political organizaion Hezbollah.

Zakka’s best hope now is assistance from the US State Department, since he is a US resident and, it seems, a State Department grantee. But so far, the State department has said that it will not provide consular assistance to a non-US citizen. 

“It's been rough, to say the least,” Ramadan says of his efforts on Zakka’s behalf. “The Department of State is not cooperating as we expected it to. However, we will continue to push on and we have a lot of activities happening in Congress in order to work on Nizar's release, and sympathetic members of Congress.”

Ramadan wants the State Department to negotiate Zakka’s release, just as it has done for US citizens in the past. “The American government should stop and hold any and all current agreements until all Americans and American permanent residents are released,” he says.

The State Department did not immediately reply to a request for comment. 


Update: On September 24, IranWire received a brief email from Ziad Zakka, Nizar Zakka’s brother, responding to Nizar’s sentence.

“This trial was a total mockery of Justice,” Zakka writes. “Nizar was lured to Iran by Vice President Molaverdi to attend a conference and was kidnapped from his taxi by men in civilian clothes on his way to the airport. For the first three months, the Iranian government denied Nizar was detained in Iran.”

Nizar, he writes, was sentenced after only two court sessions, and Iran refused to permit the attendance of the Lebanese consul despite numerous official requests.

The family is now asking for a retrial in front of an international body such as Amnesty International, in the presence of a legal representative of the Lebanese Republic.

“Nizar remains focused,” Zakka writes. “He is innocent and rejects these fabricated charges. Nizar’s health is very bad. He lost a lot of weight and needs immediate medical attention. We ask the Lebanese and US governments to do more to help secure his immediate and unconditional safe return.”


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