FRI 5 - 6 - 2020
Date: Jun 12, 2019
Source: The Daily Star
Zakka says release was a solely Lebanese initiative
Ghinwa Obeid| The Daily Star
BEIRUT: Nizar Zakka thanked President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister Saad Hariri Tuesday for their efforts in securing his release from Iranian custody, saying the initiative for his release was solely Lebanese.

Zakka, a Lebanese national whom Iran detained in 2015, was released from custody and arrived in Beirut alongside General Security chief Abbas Ibrahim.

Upon arrival, the two men headed to Baabda Palace, where Zakka’s family and Aoun greeted him.

“I am still strong, and I will ferociously defend human rights, freedom of speech and the right of access to the internet,” Zakka said in televised remarks after meeting Aoun.

Zakka was arrested in Tehran after receiving an invitation to attend a conference there. He disappeared on his way back to the airport. At the time he was a permanent resident of the United States.

State media reported later that year that he had been detained by the country’s Revolutionary Guard on suspicion of having ties to U.S. military and intelligence services.

The following year, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison after authorities accused him of being an American spy, allegations vigorously rejected by his family and associates.

News of his impending release was first announced by Lebanon’s Foreign Ministry last week.

The ministry said Iran had agreed to free Zakka in response to a request from Aoun and Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil that he be released as a goodwill gesture for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Aoun thanked Iranian President Hassan Rouhani for responding to his request for the prisoner’s release.

Reading a prepared statement after meeting with Aoun, Zakka said, “I read a lot of analysis about my release. The initiative was born in Lebanon ... and has ended in Lebanon.” He thanked Aoun, Hariri and other officials who advocated for his freedom.

Zakka later met with Hariri, and received a phone call from Bassil congratulating him on his safe arrival.

According to a statement from Hariri’s office, Zakka thanked the premier for his support. “He did not spare any opportunity to ask all the Iranians who visited Lebanon about my condition and he sent letters to all concerned parties to release me,” Zakka said. In an interview with CNN Tuesday night, Bassil said Zakka’s release had been secured through direct talks among him, Lebanese General Security and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

Though Zakka said he said he wouldn’t go into the details of his imprisonment, alleged kidnapping by the Revolutionary Guard or investigations, he later told local channel MTV: “In the beginning, I was subject to all kinds of torture. In the second phase the torture was mental, moral and psychological.” He said he would now devote himself to trying to secure the release of other prisoners who remained in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison. “Evin is not a place you would hope anyone to stay in,” he said. “It’s the ugliest place.”

Zakka is set to remain in Lebanon for a few days before heading back to the U.S., a source familiar with the case told The Daily Star.

Washington praised Zakka’s release but declined to say whether the U.S. government had been involved.

“We’re thankful for the release of the individual in Iran,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said. “The big question is there’s several others, and we want to see those people released as well.”

Speaking with reporters from Baabda, Ibrahim rebutted reports suggesting Zakka’s release had been secured primarily through Hezbollah’s intervention. “Since I arrived in Tehran, all doors were open to me in my capacity as a delegate sent by Aoun,” Ibrahim said. “Hezbollah played a role, but the basis was Aoun’s request.”

Asked why he had left Hezbollah out of the list of officials he thanked for securing his release, Zakka replied: “I’m stubborn.”

Earlier Tuesday, Iranian judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili also touched on the issue, saying, “We reviewed the [Lebanese] president’s request through the Supreme National Security Council,” adding that Hezbollah “considered the approval of his freedom as prudent.”

Esmaili was separately quoted as saying, “This is an absolutely judicial procedure, and no political issue has been involved.” - With agencies

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