Iran Releases U.S. Resident Nizar Zakka

June 11, 2019

On June 11, Iran released Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese national and permanent U.S. resident, after he spent more than 1,350 days in prison. He was invited by the Iranian government to Tehran for a business conference focusing on entrepreneurship. The information and communications technology expert attempted to leave Iran in September 2015 but was detained on his way to the airport. In 2016, Zakka was convicted of spying for the United States and sentenced to 10 years in prison. 

Zakka holds both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in computer science from the University of Texas at Austin. Zakka has lead development projects for corporations such as Cisco and Microsoft. At the time of his arrest, he was secretary general of the communications technology organization IJMA3,, which has reportedly received some $73,000 in contracts and grants from both the State Department and USAID.

Zakka’s release followed intense negotiations between Lebanese and Iranian officials. Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite political movement and militia, facilitated as well. Hezbollah is part of Lebanon’s coalition government but is also a close ally of Iran. It was established with the assistance of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in the 1980s. Fars News Agency said Zakka was released thanks to mediation by Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah “and the respect Tehran pays him.” In the picture below, Zakka (left) was on plane bound for Beirut with the Lebanese director general of public security. He arrived safely in Lebanon.

 

Zakka’s release may signal a de-escalation in tensions between Iran and the United States. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif publicly offered to exchange detainees with the United States. “We informed the government of the United States six months ago that we are ready,” he said at the Asia Society in New York on April 24. “Not a response yet. If they tell you anything else, they're lying.”

Zakka’s son met with Secretary of State Pompeo in early April 2019, but U.S. officials did not acknowledge any U.S. efforts to release his father, according to The New York Times.

 

Zakka’s Detention

Zakka was detained in September 2015, but authorities were not forthcoming with information for months. On July 11, 2016, Tehran’s prosecutor announced that Zakka had been indicted but did not specify the charges. On Sept. 20, 2016, Zakka’s lawyer announced that he had been sentenced to 10 years in prison and $4.2 million fine for collaborating against the state. On December 8, 2016, he began a hunger strike. Zakka’s American lawyer, Jason Poblete, said that he was punished for being on hunger strike and “moved to a room with 60 other men and forced to sleep on the floor side by side with common criminals,” according to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran

Zakka’s family met with Lebanese officials in late May 2017 to ask for assistance in arranging his release. Lebanese Justice Minister Salim Jreisati promised to find a resolution as soon as possible, according to a statement issued by Zakka’s lawyer.

On June 27, 2017, Nizar began his fifth hunger strike since being imprisoned in Evin Prison. Zakka issued the following statement on June 29, 2017:

“I will not sign a forced confession or accept anything less than my freedom and innocence. I would rather die with my head [held] high. I plead with those in a position to help, including the United Nations Secretary General and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran, for my release, and the release of fellow innocent Americans and others being held in Iran.”

After Zakka started another hunger strike, he reported that Evin Prison guards “increased the physical and psychological pressures on him.”

In July 2017, an audio recording was released by Zakka’s family to the Washington Free Beacon. In the recording, Zakka called for international assistance in his release, defended his innocence and vowed to continue his hunger strike "until my death or freedom." Zakka then asked to meet with a name that has been omitted from the recording to provide the gentleman with his will. He finished by expressing his desire to meet with the International Red Cross Committee before his “situation degrades significantly.” He eventually ended his strike after 33 days.

Following the release of the recording, Zakka’s lawyer Jason Poblete issued a statement on behalf of his family, which stated: “The Zakka family asks for continued prayers and support, as well as the unconditional humanitarian release of Nizar.”

On July 3, 2017, Iran confirmed that an appeals court upheld the sentences against Zakka and three American citizens. Zakka had been sentenced to 10 years in prison and a $4.2 million fine.

Zakka's U.S.-based lawyer told the Center for Human Rights in Iran that Evin Prison's director was refusing to allow outside medical treatment for Zakka for an illness that developed sine his imprisonment. 

In August 2018, Lebanon’s head of General Security Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim reportedly traveled to Tehran and met with Nizar Zakka. Ibrahim’s visit marked an attempt to pave the way for Zakka’s release and return to Lebanon. 

In September 2018, Shahdokht Molaverdi, the vice president who invited Zakka in 2015, said that the Iranian government had “failed” to help Zakka. “This is in no way approved by the government,” Molaverdi told The Associated press. “We did all we could to stop this from happening, but we are seeing that we have failed to make a significant impact.” Molaverdi alluded to the judiciary’s ability to ignore the executive branch.

On January 2, 2019, Zakka’s family claimed in a statement that Iranian authorities had transferred Nizar out of his cell in Evin Prison to a private Revolutionary Guard prison for questioning. The family said they were unable to speak with Zakka for nearly three weeks from the time it was revealed that he had been moved.

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri demanded Zakka’s release in a letter to President Rouhani on January 15, 2019. Hariri delivered the letter to Rouhani in his meeting with Iranian Ambassador to Lebanon Muhammad-Jalal Firouznia. No reply was publicized. 

In April 2019, Zakka’s son met with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other State Department officials to discuss his father’s case. “On behalf of my father and the rest of the Zakka family, I thanked Secretary Pompeo and his team for what they are doing to help bring my dad home. I am confident if Lebanon were to fully help the United States, my father would be home. Lebanon and all parties in a position to do so should follow the example of the Trump administration and help my father,” Omar Zakka said.

On June 4, Zakka’s family confirmed his imminent release by Iran in a statement:

 

On June 11, Iran released Zakka following intense negotiations with Lebanese officials and mediation by Hezbollah.