Lebanese IT specialist Zakka released by Iran

BEIRUT (Reuters) - A Lebanese businessman detained in Tehran for more than four years on charges of collaborating against Iran arrived in Beirut on Tuesday after his government secured his release.

Freed Lebanese businessman Nizar Zakka, who had been detained in Iran since 2015, gestures during a news conference at the Presidential Palace in Baabda, Lebanon June 11, 2019. REUTERS/Aziz Taher

Nizar Zakka, 52, an information technology specialist with U.S. permanent residency, was sentenced to 10 years in jail and fined $4.2 million in 2016. He denied the charges, while Iranian media have described him as a U.S. spy.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun had lobbied for Iran to grant him amnesty, and officials in Tehran said his release was partly due to the country’s close ties with Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah movement.

Zakka met with Aoun after landing in Beirut accompanied by Lebanese security chief Abbas Ibrahim.

Visibly shaken, he thanked Lebanese officials and his family profusely. He said he did not want to “go into details about false accusations and mock trials”.

Ibrahim said that while Hezbollah had played a role in the release “the base was the request from (President) Aoun.”

Zakka, who lives in Washington D.C., disappeared in Iran in 2015 after attending a conference there.

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He was a founding member of IJMA3, an IT association active in development projects in the Middle East and North Africa funded by the private sector and governments, including the United States.

Iranian media said the elite Revolutionary Guards had detained Zakka for alleged ties to U.S. security services.

The U.S. State Department applauded Zakka’s release.

“It is without a doubt a great day for Mr Zakka and all those who have supported him during his unlawful imprisonment,” a State Department spokeswoman said. “We hope that Mr Zakka’s release is a positive sign for American detainees in Iran.”

Despite increased American economic pressure against Iran, U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has said it is prepared to hold talks with Tehran without preconditions and has encouraged it to free detained Americans as a gesture of good faith.

Tehran has rejected the offer as “word play” and urged Washington to return to resume compliance with a 2015 nuclear accord that Iran reached with six world powers.

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A year after the deal ushered in a wary thaw between Washington and Tehran, five U.S. citizens were freed in a prisoner exchange. But U.S.-Iranian tensions have risen since Trump pulled the United States out of the nuclear pact in 2018.

In April, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told Reuters he was proposing “serious dialogue” with Washington on a possible prisoner swap, without mentioning Zakka.

A spokesman for the Iranian judiciary said Zakka’s release was “a totally judicial process without any political stances or (prisoner) exchange being considered.”

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.

Ibrahim told Reuters on Monday he was also working on securing the release of four Lebanese citizens detained in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, as well as on the case of businessman Kassim Tajideen, who is in a U.S. prison.

The U.S. Treasury has sanctioned Tajideen and accuses him of funding the heavily armed Shi’ite Hezbollah, which Iran’s Revolutionary Guards founded in 1982.

Reporting by Ellen Francis and Laila Bassam in Beirut, Lesley Wroughton in Washington and Dubai newsroom; Writing by Angus McDowall and Ellen Francis; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Bill Berkrot