The detention in Iran of Lebanese citizen and U.S. permanent resident Nizar Zakka is a “U.S. Iranian problem,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said during an official visit to Lebanon on Monday, as the man's family urged that he be repatriated to Lebanon.
“What happened with Mr. Zakka is not a problem between Iran and Lebanon, seeing as the problem was the violation of the applicable laws in Iran by a foreigner, and the problem is actually between the United States and Iran,” Zarif said in response to a reporter's question.
After being detained for around a year without trial over spying allegations, Zakka was sentenced to 10 years in prison and a $4.2 million fine on September 20.
“The sentence that was given to Nizar Zakka more than a month ago is an unjust ruling and it should not apply to a Lebanese citizen,” Zakka's family said in a statement it issued on the occasion's of Zarif's visit earlier in the day.
“He has not been allowed to meet with the Lebanese consul in Tehran throughout the entire period of detention. Furthermore, the consul and the family have not been allowed to see the verdict's text or the charges,” it added.
Describing newly-elected President Michel Aoun as “the father of all Lebanese who has promised that no Lebanese citizen will be aggrieved during his tenure,” the family urged the president to “ask the Iranian state to end injustice and to repatriate Lebanese citizen Nizar Zakka so that he can be tried under the Lebanese law.”
Stressing its “full confidence in his innocence,” the family also called on Speaker Nabih Berri and Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri to exert efforts in this regard.
Amnesty International has said Zakka had only two court hearings before the ruling and received only limited legal assistance. The closed-door tribunal handles cases involving alleged attempts to overthrow the government.
Supporters say Judge Abolghassem Salavati heard Zakka's case. Salavati is known for his tough sentences and has heard other politically charged cases, including one in which he sentenced Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian to prison. A prisoner swap in January between Iran and the U.S. freed Rezaian and three other Iranian-Americans.
Zakka, who lives in Washington and holds resident status in the U.S., leads the Arab ICT Organization, or IJMA3, an industry consortium from 13 countries that advocates for information technology in the region.
Zakka disappeared Sept. 18, 2015, during his fifth trip to Iran. He had been invited to attend a conference at which President Hassan Rouhani spoke of providing more economic opportunities for women and sustainable development.
On November 3, Iranian state television aired a report saying he was in custody and calling him a spy with "deep links" with U.S. intelligence services.
It also showed what it described as a damning photo of Zakka and three other men in army-style uniforms, two with flags and two with rifles on their shoulders. But that turned out to be from a homecoming event at Zakka's prep school, the Riverside Military Academy in Georgia, according to the school's president.
It's unclear what prompted Iranian authorities to detain Zakka. The Associated Press reported in May that Zakka's IJMA3 organization had received at least $730,000 in contracts and grants since 2009 from both the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, USAID.
Zakka's supporters have written Secretary of State John Kerry stating that Zakka traveled to Iran "with the knowledge and approval of the U.S. State Department, and his trip was funded by grants" from it.
Neither American nor Lebanese officials, who the U.S. says are responsible for providing consular assistance to Zakka, have publicly acknowledged Zakka's work with the U.S. government.
In a statement, the State Department said in September that it was "troubled" by Zakka's reported sentence and demanded his immediate release.
"We reaffirm our calls on Iran to respect and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms, cease any arbitrary or politically motivated detentions and ensure fair and transparent judicial proceedings in all criminal prosecutions," the statement said.
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