July 13, 2020 / 6:37 PM / a month ago

Exclusive: Lebanese man freed by U.S. as part of secret talks, sources say

BEIRUT (Reuters) - A Lebanese man accused of financing Hezbollah was freed from jail in the United States last month as a result of indirect contacts between Tehran and Washington that are expected to yield more releases, three senior Middle East officials said.

Kassim Tajideen was released on June 11, according to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons, and arrived in Lebanon last week. Two of the sources said his release was part of the same track that last year yielded the release of Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese businessman with U.S. permanent residency, from Iran, and Sam Goodwin, a U.S. citizen, from Syria.

Tajideen was released due to health concerns and reports that the release was part of a backroom deal were false, a Department of State spokesperson said.

Tajideen’s lawyer, Chibli Mallat, also denied that the release had anything to do with the release of other prisoners. “It was a purely judicial operation,” he said.

Tajideen, 65, pleaded guilty in 2018 to charges associated with violating U.S. sanctions imposed on him and was sentenced to five years in prison and fined $50 million.

In 2009, the United States designated Tajideen as an important financial supporter of Hezbollah, a heavily armed, Iran-backed Lebanese Shi’ite group that is classified as a terrorist group by Washington. He was extradited to the United States after being arrested in Morocco in 2017.

Tajideen has always denied supporting Hezbollah and disputed his designation as a terrorist financier, said Mallat.

A judge ordered Tajideen’s release on May 27 pending a 14-day quarantine on the basis of a motion submitted by his lawyers arguing that he should be freed due to the risks of COVID-19 in jail, Mallat said. He was being held in Maryland.

The reasons for his release are under seal in the United States.

The U.S. government had opposed the release but would abide by the court’s decision, said the State Department spokesperson.

“The fact that he was released early due to health concerns and removed from the United States does not diminish the severity of his crime,” the spokesperson said in emailed responses to Reuters.

The sources - a senior official in the Middle East, a senior Lebanese official and a regional diplomat - said the release was the result of “indirect understandings” between Tehran and Washington.   

“The release of Tajideen comes within a long path of exchange operations that will happen later on a wide level. There are still those who will be released by the two sides. This operation will continue,” the Middle Eastern official said.

The regional diplomat also described Tajideen’s release as a prelude to further possible deals involving around 20 people. “All parties involved are testing each other as there is zero trust,” he said.

Major General Abbas Ibrahim, the head of Lebanon’s General Security agency, is acting as the main mediator in the process, two of the sources said. General Security declined to comment.

The senior Lebanese official said the process had been going on in complete secrecy and had started with the handing over of Goodwin and other foreigners held by Syria, whose government is allied to Iran and Hezbollah.

Additional reporting by Tom Perry in Beirut, Jonathan Stempel in Washington, and Humeyra Pamuk Writing by Tom Perry, Editing by Dominic Evans, Rosalba O'Brien and Jon Boyle

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