The name Mahmoud Mousavi-Majd wouldn’t have rung a bell for most of us until a few days ago. That is, until the Iranian judiciary published a picture of him and claimed that he had been working with US and Israeli intelligence spy on General Ghasem Soleimani: the former commander of Iran’s external operations who was assassinated on January 3 by a US drone. Mousavi-Majd is now on death row.
But Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese IT specialist and internet freedom advocate who spent almost four years in arbitrary detention in Iran, has known Mousavi-Majd for a long time. They met in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison.
“He is a good friend and an innocent man,” Zakka tells IranWire in a phone interview from his home in Washington DC. “We were together in a section of Evin Prison dedicated to political prisoners. He was a young guy and spoke Arabic in the Lebanese dialect. So we talked and he told me his story.”
The Iranian government claims Mousavi-Majd was arrested 24 months ago. According to Zakka, he was a student at a small international university in Beirut and was kidnapped by forces close to Iran, then taken to Tehran.
“He was kidnapped in Lebanon, supposedly by Hezbollah, and nobody in the Lebanese government is doing anything about it,” Nizar adds.
According to Zakka, Mousavi-Majd was living in an apartment in front of Beirut’s Galaxy cinema. One day he was picked up in front of his house.
“He told me that they took him to interrogation,” Zakka says, and adds that Mousavi-Majd was threatened with torture. He was then put on a flight to Iran where he was handed over to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), a powerful militia that acts as the praetorian guard of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.
According to Zakka, Mousavi-Majd was targeted due to his Facebook posts criticizing Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah. If he was really a spy with links to such grave national security issues, Zakka asks, how come he was held alongside ordinary political prisoners?
Mousavi-Majd was kept in the same prison section as Zakka and others including Xiyue Wang, a Chinese-American PhD student of history or the Iranian-Austrian businessman Kamran Ghaderi.
Iran’s state-controlled media and those aligned with it have published contradictory information about Mousavi-Majd. As usual, Iran has offered no evidence to back the charges of espionage against him.
Mizan, the judiciary’s own news agency, has denied rumors that linked Mousavi-Majd to religious centers in Iran. Beirut’s Al-Akhbar newspaper, which expresses views close to those of Hezbollah, has repeated the Iranian government’s claims and reported that Mousavi Majd told Americans and Israelis about Soleimani’s movements and place of residence.
The Iranian authorities have clarified, though, that Mousavi-Majd was arrested more than a year ago and his alleged activities were not linked to Soleimani’s assassination in January. An Iranian official told RT Arabic that Mousavi-Majd had been informing “the enemy” about Iran’s military presence in Syria.
Nizar Zakka says he has raised Mousavi-Majd’s case “at every occasion” since the very day he was freed in June 2019. “On the first day I was released, I met the Prime Minister of Lebanon, Saad Hariri, and told him about Mahmoud,” he tells IranWire. “But the Lebanese government did nothing.”
According to Zakka, Mousavi-Majd’s father contacted the Iranian embassy in Beirut following his son’s disappearance. For months, he was told that Mousavi Majd was on a confidential mission in Iran.
Zakka says Mousavi-Majd was “sure nothing would happen to him” when they met in prison. But in September, the Iranian student contacted his Lebanese friend to tell him he was now facing the death penalty.
“I feel responsible because he was kidnapped in Lebanon and the Lebanese government didn’t do anything for him,” Zakka says. “He had entered the country officially and was kidnapped on Lebanese territory. I told this to head of a security section in the Interior Ministry. This is a high-ranking intelligence organization that had investigated the death of Rafiq Hariri [Lebanon’s previous prime minister, killed in 2005] but they didn’t do anything.”
“Unfortunately, Hezbollah controls these government bodies,” he adds bitterly.
Zakka also stresses his friend’s innocence. “He is a good guy, funny and smart. He is like a typical Lebanese guy; he’s learnt our language and our slangs. His network in Lebanon is that of open-minded people. He had many memories from Lebanon’s bars and nightclubs. There is no truth to the claims that he was embedded in Hezbollah or part of this or that Iranian force. He wasn’t into such things. He is innocent.”