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Wednesday, October 4, 2023

D.C. Contractor Nizar Zakka Freed from Iran After Nearly Four Years

A State Department contractor and longtime permanent resident of the U.S. has been released from Iran’s notorious Evin prison after more than four years in captivity.

“After more than 1,350 days in captivity in Iran, we have received excellent news: Mr. Nizar Zakka is a free man. Nizar looks forward to reuniting with family and friends. Nizar expresses his sincerest thanks to those who never forgot him,” said Zakka’s U.S. attorney, Jason Poblete.

Zakka, a Lebanese-American and permanent U.S. resident, was invited by the Iranian government to speak at a conference on women’s entrepreneurship in September 2015 — a trip partly funded by the State Department — and was seized as he tried to fly home to D.C.

Zakka, a University of Texas graduate, is secretary-general of the Dupont Circle-based IJMA3 group, an Internet freedom and technology advocacy NGO. Iran sentenced him to 10 years in prison on espionage charges. Earlier this year, Zakka weathered his seventh hunger strike behind bars.

“Time and again our hopes that our father will be released have been shattered. My father has been subjected to physical and mental torture and ill treatment by his captors who continue to exert pressure on him to make false confessions to support his crimes,” his youngest son, Omar, told a House subcommittee in March. “Sometimes my father has been promised that if he confesses, he will be released. My father is a man of honor and integrity. He will not confess to a crime he has not committed.”

Omar Zakka declared that “my father’s kidnapping is an act of state terrorism.”

“Currently, my father is being held underground, sharing four crowded cells between 50 of them, about 17 men to each cell. There, in my father’s cell, it’s rank with the smell of sewage. It is infested with rats and bedbugs. There is no designated place for him to eat. My father spends 16 hours of each day and every day in a coffin-sized space where he sleeps and keeps all of his close clothes and a few of his possessions,” Omar continued. “They cannot see the sunlight or breathe fresh air at any time except for two hours a day during lunchtime. They have to choose to have lunch and miss the sun or to see the sun and miss lunch.”

Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, head of Lebanon’s General Security, flew to Iran on Sunday to secure Zakka’s release, his department tweeted on Sunday.

That day, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei pardoned about 700 prisoners to mark the end of Ramadan but not Zakka. Iran said it was weighing an amnesty request from Lebanon and Zakka.

“Nizar also wants to remind those who can help that there remain many Americans, U.S. LPRs, and other foreigners in Iranian prisons,” Poblete added. “Nizar grew close to some of these men; they need help and want to come home.”

Still missing in Iran is the longest-held hostage in U.S. history: Bob Levinson, who served five years with the DEA and 25 at the FBI before his retirement. March 9 marked 12 years since his disappearance on Iran’s Kish Island.

Siamak Namazi, a U.S. citizen and businessman, was seized in October 2015 on a visit to Tehran. His father, Baquer Namazi, also a U.S. citizen, was trying to secure his son’s release when he was seized in Tehran in February 2016. The pair were sentenced to 10 years in prison on charges of “spying and cooperating with the U.S. government against Iran.” Baquer, 82, has been hospitalized eight times, has lost more than 20 pounds and has been diagnosed with epilepsy and 70 percent blockage of the arteries leading to his brain.

Iran holds Princeton University doctoral student Xiyue Wang, who was arrested in August 2016 for scanning historical documents related to his Ph.D. research and sentenced to 10 years. The University of Washington graduate has a 6-year-old son, Shao, with his wife, Qu Hua, who has been laboring intensively for Xiyue’s release.

Qu has reported that her husband’s physical and mental health are rapidly deteriorating under the strain of his harsh prison conditions. The 38-year-old has developed arthritis in both of his knees, among other maladies.

Iran also seized art gallery owner Karan Vafadari in July 2016 by first detaining his Iranian wife at the airport and directing her to call and summon him there. They lobbed various vice charges at the Zoroastrian before he was sentenced to 27 years and 124 lashes for “collusion in plots against national security” and other charges. He said in a letter a year ago that the IRGC tried to force his wife “to say I was a member of the Mossad and the CIA… so they could hang me.”

In January 2018, Morad Tahbaz, a Connecticut conservationist, was arrested along with other current and former staffers of the Persian Heritage Wildlife Foundation. A Canadian among the arrested, Kavous Seyed-Emam, died in custody 17 days into his interrogation and detention; Iran claims he committed suicide, which his family disputes. Iran claims the trap cameras used to film wildlife were spying on the country’s missile program.

Michael White, a U.S. Navy veteran detained in July and sentenced last month to a decade behind bars. “White was beaten, has no money to hire a lawyer, and still does not know if any charges are filed against him. White is a former cancer patient and his health is worsening,” Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) said in March.

Bridget Johnson
Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a terrorism analyst and security consultant with a specialty in online open-source extremist propaganda, incitement, recruitment, and training. She hosts and presents in Homeland Security Today law enforcement training webinars studying a range of counterterrorism topics including conspiracy theory extremism, complex coordinated attacks, critical infrastructure attacks, arson terrorism, drone and venue threats, antisemitism and white supremacists, anti-government extremism, and WMD threats. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15 and a private investigator. Bridget is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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