|Date: Jun 15, 2019|
|Source: The Daily Star|
|Zakka: IRGC were laughing the whole time|
|Joseph Haboush| The Daily Star|
DBAYEH, Lebanon: “Habibi, my beloved son, habibi, habibi. How are you? ... It’s finished, khalas, I’m back home,” Nizar Zakka tells his son, Nadim, who has just called from the United States.“I’m going to a medical test and my medicine will be changed,” he continues, taking the call during an interview with The Daily Star Thursday, two days after returning to Beirut following his release from Iran’s notorious Evin Prison.
The near four-year ordeal began in 2015 when Iran’s Revolutionary Guard kidnapped him, he says, while he was en route to the airport after attending a conference in Iran.
“He was worried and it was very difficult for them,” Zakka says after hanging up the phone with his son.
His three children have been living in the United States and it does not appear that they will return to Lebanon. “They have been there for four years and they have adjusted to life there,” Zakka says after being asked if they will return to Lebanon.
Zakka, who has U.S. residency, will be heading there to see his children in the next several days for a short visit.
He repeatedly expressed gratitude for those he says were instrumental in securing his release, so he can finally see his children again.
“The Lebanese media, you don’t know how important you are. You don’t know how much spirit you gave me and if it wasn’t for you and your support for this Lebanese man, I wouldn’t have survived.”
This helped counter the “ambiance” the Revolutionary Guard had instilled across Iran that “I was some big American spy” - a charge Zakka vehemently denies.
“People don’t know what happened to us over there [in Iran] and you were the only ones who could relay the message that I wasn’t a spy or guilty,” he says.
Zakka also thanked the U.S. Congress for repeatedly raising his case and clarified that his frustration was with the Revolutionary Guard, not the Iranian state.
“The Guard took us, not the state,” he says, emphasizing the alleged rift between the Revolutionary Guard - hard-line supporters of the supreme leader - and Iranian President Hasan Rouhani.
“When Zarif resigned, we emptied a bed for him [in prison],” Zakka jokes, regarding the later-withdrawn resignation of Tehran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, this year.
Zakka had received an invitation from a government official to attend the conference that brought him to Tehran, but then disappeared.
State media later reported that he had been detained by the country’s Revolutionary Guard on suspicion of having ties to U.S. military and intelligence services.
“I was blindfolded and taken away, not knowing where I was for 45 days,” he says. After around 60 days, in November 2015, a picture of Zakka wearing a military uniform posing in front of the White House was released on Iranian TV.
An alumnus of Riverside Military Academy in the state of Georgia, Zakka was posing with four other classmates, at an alumni event, in the photo.
Zakka says he had posted the photo on his public Facebook account and it was used against him “when the Iranians couldn’t find him guilty of anything.” But when the photo appeared in Iranian media, one of Zakka’s classmates was circled in red as the accused. “When I asked them why they didn’t circle me, they laughed and told me, ‘We like to confuse people.’”
The Associated Press reported in May 2016 that Zakka’s IJMA3 organization, an industry consortium spanning 13 countries that advocates for information technology in the Arab region, had received at least $730,000 in contracts and grants since 2009 from the U.S. State Department and USAID. But it is unclear whether Iranian authorities based their actions on this aid.
The same mocking laughter Zakka had encountered from the Guard was something that would continue throughout his detention, despite the outside world taking the case seriously, he says.
Zakka said his only trial hearing lasted three minutes. There, Judge Abolghassem Salavati from the Revolutionary Court in Tehran accused Zakka of leading a “multicolored revolution.”
“He said I was behind a revolution in Ukraine. I told him that I was Nizar Zakka, to make sure he didn’t have the case mixed up and was looking at the wrong one,” he says. “They were all laughing the whole time.”
One week after the hearing, Zakka was sentenced to 10 years in prison and slapped with a $4.2 million fine. But Zakka says there was no mention of spying for the United States in his sentence.
During his time in Evin, he recalls, the inmates in his section shared two phones, with each allowed to speak for 15 minutes a day between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. Zakka and the 49 others were divided between three rooms.
Occasionally, the Iranian inmates would give Zakka their phone minutes because, unlike him, they enjoyed weekly family visits.
At times, when Zakka’s frustrations boiled over, either he or his family would release statements to the public, pleading for his release or help from the Lebanese government.
Sometimes, as punishment for the statements, he would be taken to solitary confinement, and other times, “they wanted me to speak out so my value could rise in case of negotiations.”
While Zakka may have been a candidate for a potential prisoner swap between Iran and other countries, he says his release was ultimately not part of any such deal.
In recent weeks, statements from his family and Lebanon’s Foreign Ministry said that his release had finally become a strong possibility.
A statement from the office of Gebran Bassil, the Lebanese foreign minister, last week announced that Iran had agreed to free Zakka in response to President Michel Aoun and Bassil’s request that the detainee be released as a goodwill gesture for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Aoun then dispatched General Security chief Abbas Ibrahim - who has a past as a successful negotiator in hostage cases - to Tehran to facilitate the process.
Zakka believes there are two reasons for his release: Iran’s need for Lebanon and allies as it faces unprecedented sanctions and pressure from abroad, as well as the requests from Lebanese officials.
A key episode leading up to his release, Zakka says, was Zarif’s official visit to Lebanon last February, when the diplomat offered Iran’s help in Lebanon’s ailing electricity sector.
According to Zakka, the officials Zarif met with raised his case as a sticking point. He adds, “The president [Aoun] was clear that this was a very important issue for Lebanon.”
The time was right for Iran to make the gesture, he says. “They can sell it to Lebanon too, since the president called for the release. All the stars were aligned for them to release me.”
When the time finally came, he didn’t believe it would actually happen. The day before his release, someone took his measurements for a suit. Donning his new clothes, he was brought to meet Ibrahim, who had arrived in Tehran. After Ibrahim asked for a picture to be taken of them together to send back to Beirut, there was some debate with Iranian officials, and a picture was eventually snapped and sent out.
But then Zakka was taken back to his cell.
“The next day, they told me to put on my suit and shirt and told me to pick a cake, Persian rug and other gifts,” he says, sitting next to the framed rug.
The Iranians asked Zakka to understand what he says they described as a “miscommunication” over his detention and invited him to come back to Iran at any time.
He will not fly on an airline that so much as flies over Iran, Zakka now says.
“I feel like I went to a conference in Iran four days ago and I just got back today. Four years of my life disappeared, and I say I was in a coma.”
Zakka has begun to adjust to his new circumstances, but his near-four-year stay in Iran may have lasting consequences. On Wednesday, he had to go to the hospital for a “little incident,” but says he feels better now.
As for his mental health, “people are saying that I will have setbacks. I haven’t slept [since being released].”