Zakka Arrives in Lebanon, Slams Iran over 'Arbitrary Detention, Show Trial'
A U.S. permanent resident and Lebanese businessman who was imprisoned for years in Iran arrived Tuesday afternoon in his native Lebanon after being freed by Tehran.
Nizar Zakka, held in Iran since 2015, arrived on a private plane accompanied by the chief of Lebanon's General Security Directorate, Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim.
They immediately headed to the Baabda Palace where the met with President Michel Aoun.
Relatives of Zakka were also present at the presidential palace.
Zakka flashed reporters the victory sign and hugged his brother Ziad before he went into the meeting with Aoun, who had personally requested his release.
At a joint press conference with Ibrahim after the meeting, Zakka blasted Iran, saying he was subjected to "kidnapping, arbitrary detention and a show trial."
Zakka told reporters that the initiative to release him was "born in Lebanon" and "100% a national" one, but he acknowledged that it served to de-escalate tensions between the U.S. and Iran.
"I'm still strong and resilient and I have become fiercer in defending freedom and the freedom of internet," Zakka added.
Ibrahim for his part told reporters that Hizbullah had "played a role" in the case but stressed that Zakka has been freed "at President Aoun's request," dismissing an Iranian media report that claimed otherwise as "baseless."
"Zakka was released following President Aoun's letter to (Iranian) President Hassan Rouhani," Ibrahim said.
Aoun had told Zakka during the meeting: "I once said that existing without freedom is a form of the forms of death, so thank God that you have become a free man once again."
Zakka later met with Prime Minister Saad Hariri at the Grand Serail and received a phone call from Foreign Minister Jebran Bassil.
Zakka is one of several prisoners with either dual nationality or links to the West held in Iran. His release comes as tensions between Iran and the U.S. remain high after President Donald Trump withdrew America from Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers.
Earlier Tuesday, an Iranian judiciary official confirmed that Tehran has agreed to hand over Zakka to Lebanese officials, providing the first official confirmation of his release, which had been anticipated for days.
"A court has accepted the condition of freedom of Nizar Zakka and he will be handed over to Lebanese officials," judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili said, according to the judiciary's Mizan news agency.
A report Monday on the Iranian state TV's website mirrored an earlier one carried by the semi-official Fars news agency about Zakka, an internet freedom advocate who was arrested in September 2015 while trying to fly out of Tehran. He had just attended a conference there on the invitation of one of the country's vice presidents.
The state TV, like Fars, both quoted an anonymous source saying Zakka's forthcoming release should only be seen as a "sign of respect" for Hizbullah and its leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah.
"In this regard, no negotiations have taken place at any level with any person or any government," state TV said.
Esmaili stressed that Zakka's release was within "the frame of the law."
"We reviewed the (Lebanese) president's request through the Supreme National Security Council," Esmaili said. "Also, the Lebanese Hizbullah group considered the approval of his freedom as prudent."
State TV later quoted an anonymous source as saying Zakka would be released on Tuesday afternoon and will be allowed to leave Tehran.
In 2016, Iran sentenced Zakka to 10 years in prison. Authorities accused him of being an American spy, allegations vigorously rejected by his family and associates.
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.
In 2016, The Associated Press reported that Zakka's supporters wrote to then-Secretary of State John Kerry, stating Zakka traveled to Iran "with the knowledge and approval of the U.S. State Department, and his trip was funded by grants" from it.
Zakka's IJMA3 organization had received at least $730,000 in contracts and grants since 2009 from both the State Department and USAID, the lead American government agency fighting poverty and promoting democracy across the world.
The State Department has yet to respond to a years-old request from the AP for information about those grants.
Shahindokht Molaverdi, an adviser to President Hassan Rouhani who as a vice president invited Zakka to Iran, told the AP in September that Iran's government had "failed" to help Zakka.
"This is in no way approved by the government," Molaverdi said. "We did all we could to stop this from happening, but we are seeing that we have failed to make a significant impact."