Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun is soon to travel to Tehran, and there will be much on his plate. Elected in 2016 with strong support from the Iranian-backed Shia militia-cum-party Hezbollah, President Aoun is eager to prove that he puts the interests of the Lebanese first. And one Lebanese citizen has a simple request from his president, giving him an excellent opportunity to prove himself: Bring my father home.
Nadim Nizar Zakka is the son of Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese businessman and a permanent resident of the US who has been imprisoned in Iran since September 2015, having being convicted to 10 years’ imprisonment on espionage-related charges. Nadim wants President Aoun, who his father apparently endorsed, to intervene and secure his release, especially as he suffers from a medical condition and has been on hunger strike for more than two weeks.
“Nizar Zakka is a Lebanese citizen who does not possess any other nationality, and he went to Iran under a visa in his Lebanese passport [issued] by the Iranian Embassy in Beirut,” Nadim wrote in a letter to President Aoun, which his family shared with IranWire. The letter appeals to the Lebanese state to “shoulder its responsibility” and “restore the dignity of Lebanese citizens outside their country” so that Lebanese citizens will “regain confidence in their country, state and Lebanese passport.”
While governments are expected to take care of their citizens who have been arrested abroad, Beirut, which has historically close links to Tehran, has not issued a single statement on Zakka. At the time of writing, IranWire’s request for comment from various Lebanese diplomatic representations in the United States and Europe remained unanswered.
Before his arrest, Nizar Zakka lived in Washington DC and headed IMJA3, an Arab IT consortium that advocates for the industry in the Middle East. In September 2015, he went to Iran to speak in the second annual “International Conference on the Role of Women in Sustainable Development,” to which he had been personally invited by Shahindokht Molaverdi, a popular politician and then a senior deputy to President Hassan Rouhani. Molaverdi, who is known for her bold feminist stance and a favorite target for Iran's hardliners, opened the conference. Among the distinguished guests present were the Industry Minister Mohammadreza Nematzade and Azerbaijan’s Ambassador Javanshir Akhundov. Iran’s Trade Promotion Organization held a lavish welcome at a pavilion, which catered to the VIP guests. Among them was Zakka, who was present throughout the conference.
Then, on September 18, 2015, just as Zakka was leaving his hotel for Tehran’s Imam Khomeini airport, he disappeared. To the embarrassment of the Iranian cabinet officials who had organized the conference, they had no clue who had taken him, a source close to Molaverdi told IranWire. But Iran watchers knew what to expect. In early November, domestic media confirmed the news that IranWire and other media had predicted: Zakka was being held by the notoriously powerful militia, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
“Zakka traveled to Iran on the invitation of a government entity,” Tara Sepehrifar, a DC-based researcher with the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch, told IranWire. ”His arrest and prosecution seem to be motivated by hardliners’ quest to control domestic politics post-JCPOA [the nuclear deal].”
The usual game followed. The hardliner media, some of them quoting IranWire’s news of the arrest, claimed that Zakka was a high-up US asset with links to the military. “This US-Lebanese citizen [Zakka is not actually a US citizen, but a permanent resident] has deep links to the intelligence and military communities of the United States and due to his very special connections is considered a ‘hidden treasure,’” claimed the hardline Masghreh News on 2 November 2015.
The only “evidence” of Zakka’s supposed “military” background was a photograph that showed him in uniform from his time at the Riverside Military Academy in the United States. But the institute’s name is misleading. Far from being a military institution, it is actually a private boarding school for boys, teaching grades seven to 12. In other words, it’s a high school.
Nevertheless, even Iran’s official broadcasters ran the story and claimed that Zakka had planned to organize demonstrations in support for internet freedom in Iran. This, despite the fact that he had been invited to speak at a public conference organized by the Iranian government that was held during Iran’s Government Week, and despite the fact that the Iranian embassy in Beirut had issued his visa.
After a year of detention, on September 20, 2016, it was announced that a trial had found him guilty of espionage and that he had been convicted to 10 years in prison and a $4.2 million fine.
Fresh Hopes for his Release
Zakka has had a challenging time in prison. His family say he has been tortured and three medial experts have recommended hospitalization for him. He also lost his mother while he was in prison.
His family has new hope as President Aoun visits Iran and international pressure increases on the country to release innocent prisoners held on bogus charges.
“We are fully confident that the Islamic Republic of Iran will not reject your request for the release of Nizar should it be made in a serious manner, especially since there are special ties between the two countries,” the family’s letter to Aoun reads. It also notes that in the past, the presidents of Azerbaijan and Brazil and “even Kuwait’s foreign minister” have successfully intervened to release their citizens.
In early October, the US Senate Foreign Affairs Committee passed a resolution asking Iran to release Zakka and other US citizens and permanent residents held there. The US House Middle East and North Africa Subcommittee also held a hearing on US policy in Lebanon recently. The Subcommittee’s chairwoman, Ileana Ros-Lehtninen (R-Florida), used the occasion to advocate for Zakka.
“I’m also interested in hearing any updates on the current status of United States permanent resident and Lebanese citizen Nizar Zakka,” the congresswoman said, before recounting his story. “I hope to hear some positive updates on what the States is doing and what Lebanon is doing to bring Nizar home.”
Nizar’s son, Omar, had spoken to the same subcommittee in September.
"Zakka is one of the half dozen foreign and dual nationals who have been prosecuted on vaguely-defined charges of cooperating with a foreign government,” said Sepehrifar of Human Rights Watch. “Not only are the judicial authorities so far unable to publicly provide any evidence of a criminal act, but they have also deprived people like Zakka of basic due process.”
The list of prisoners with ties to the West is as diverse as it is shocking: Xiyue Wang, a Chinese-American student of history at Princeton. Abdolrasoul Dorri Esfahani, an Iranian-Canadian who was part of the Iranian nuclear negotiation team. Siamak Namazi, a businessman, and his 81-year-old father, Baquer, who was a representative of UNICEF before his retirement. Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian who works for Reuters Thomsons’ charity arm. Kamal Foroughi, a British-Iranian who recently marked his 78th birthday in an Iranian prison.
All of these people were arrested by the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC). The official government led by President Rouhani frequently shrugs its shoulders when asked about their fate. Iran’s judiciary, controlled by the hardliners, is also more in tune with the guards than it is the government.
It remains to be seen whether President Aoun can successfully stand up for a citizen of his country and bring about his release.