Former Iranian aide to Rouhani condemns arrest of recently freed U.S. prisoner

Lebanon's Foreign Ministry said in a statement last week that efforts to secure Zakka's release had been successful.

June 16, 2019 16:42
4 minute read.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is seen during a public speech in the southern Hormozgan province

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is seen during a public speech in the southern Hormozgan province, Iran, February 17, 2019. (photo credit: IRANIAN PRESIDENCY WEBSITE/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)


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Shahindokht Molaverdi, a former deputy president of Iran and an aide to President Hassan Rouhani, condemned Iranian intelligence as well as judicial authorities for the imprisonment of a U.S. citizen, Nizar Zakka, who was set free after over four years in prison.

The American citizen was invited to a 2015 conference by Molaverdi, where he was then arrested by the government for spying on the Islamic republic.

In a 2015 interview with the Associated Press, she claimed that her government had "failed" to help Zakka. Three days after Zakka's release, Moldeverdi wrote on her Instagram account that: "Heavy cases related to espionage are shelved with a happy ending, one after another. Now, we are only left with a multitude of libelous accusations," according to a Radio Farda report.

Afterwards, conservative political activists criticized Moldaverdi for having a wavering relationship with the "captured spy."

"Immediately after his detention, [Iranian officials] hacked my email and all social media platforms I was using," she wrote.

Zakka, the Lebanese businessman detained in Iran since 2015 for alleged anti-state activity, left the country last Tuesday, a Lebanese official said, after Beirut secured his release.

He flew to Beirut with Lebanon's security chief Abbas Ibrahim, the official told Reuters.

"If you were already aware of the existence of such an asset, why did you not immediately arrest him on his arrival? Why did you wait for a whole week to detain such a precious piece?" Molaverdi continued.

Zakka, who also holds US residency, was sentenced in 2016 to 10 years in prison and a $4.2 million fine for "collaborating against the state."

Lebanon's president and foreign minister had urged Tehran to grant amnesty to Zakka, and Iranian officials said his release was partly due to the country's close ties with Lebanon's Hezbollah group.

Zakka was detained in 2015 after being invited to Iran to take part in a conference. Iranian media has described him as a US spy.

A spokesman for Iran's judiciary said Zakka's release was "a totally judicial process without any political stances or [prisoner] exchange being considered."

Lebanon's internal security chief Abbas Ibrahim was in Tehran to negotiate Zakka's release on Monday, and he would be freed late on Monday or early on Tuesday and put in Ibrahim's custody, the security official said.

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

"The move will take place in the next few hours. This is done solely because of the respect for and dignity of (Hezbollah leader) Hassan Nasrallah," the source told Fars.

Hezbollah is the most powerful armed force in Lebanon as well as being part of the governing coalition in Beirut. Fars did not say whether Hezbollah would free Zakka once he was in Lebanon, should he indeed be handed over to the Shi'ite group.

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 he had been detained by the Revolutionary Guards for alleged ties to U.S. security services.

State media reported in 2017 that he had lost an appeal against his conviction. The U.S. State Department had in 2016 called for his release, saying he was unjustly held.

Last week, Lebanon's Foreign Ministry said in a statement that efforts to secure Zakka's release had been successful.

Zakka told the Associated Press a day after his release that he was put through "all kinds of torture" both physically and mentally.

"Nobody on earth deserves such suffering," he said.

In April, Iran's 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.

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.

Several Iranian dual nationals from the United States, Britain, Canada and France have been detained in the past few years and are being kept behind bars on charges including espionage and collaborating with hostile governments.

A year after a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and major powers ushered in a wary thaw between Washington and Tehran, Iranian authorities freed five U.S. citizens in a prisoner exchange.

However, U.S.-Iranian tensions have risen anew since Washington pulled out of the nuclear pact last year, as well as from the international arena due to a purported attack by Iranian forces on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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