June 10, 2019 / 11:56 AM / 7 days ago

Lebanese man held in Iran expected to go home on Tuesday

BEIRUT/DUBAI (Reuters) - Lebanon’s general security chief Abbas Ibrahim told Reuters on Monday that Lebanese detainee Nizar Zakka, who has U.S. residency, would be freed by Iran on Tuesday and that Ibrahim would return with him to Lebanon.

Lebanon’s president and foreign minister have urged Tehran to grant an amnesty to Zakka, who was detained in 2015 and sentenced in 2016 to 10 years in prison and a $4.2 million fine for “collaborating against the state”.

“The release of Nizar Zakka will take place on Tuesday after the completion of the judicial proceedings, which are nearly done,” Ibrahim said.

A photograph distributed on Lebanese media showed Zakka and Ibrahim sitting together and smiling, with Iranian and Lebanese flags displayed on a table next to them.

Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency, citing an unnamed source, earlier said Zakka would be handed to Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shi’ite group founded in 1982 by Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards Corps.

Asked about the Fars report, Ibrahim said it had caused “confusion”. Hezbollah is the most powerful armed force in Lebanon as well as being part of the governing coalition in Beirut.

Zakka, an information technology specialist with permanent residency in the United States, vanished in Iran in 2015 after being invited by a government official to attend a conference there. Iranian media said later that he had been detained by the Revolutionary Guards over its allegations that he had ties to U.S. security services.

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

“We certainly hope these reports are accurate,” State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus told reporters when asked about Zakka’s imminent release.

State media reported in 2017 that Zakka had lost an appeal against his conviction.

Last April, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told Reuters he was proposing “a serious dialogue” with the United States on a possible prisoner swap, though he did not say whether Zakka might be included.

Last week, Lebanon’s Foreign Ministry said efforts to secure Zakka’s release had been successful. Ibrahim said the release was not connected to any wider swap.

Iran says a number of its nationals are being held unjustly in the West, including at least 56 in the United States, and has asked for their immediate release.

A year after a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and major powers ushered in a wary thaw between the United States and Tehran, Iranian authorities freed five U.S. citizens in a prisoner exchange. However, U.S.-Iranian tensions have risen anew since U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew Washington from the nuclear pact in May 2018.

Reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Dubai, Laila Bassam in Beirut, and Lesley Wroughton in Washington; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Grant McCool

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