Beirut, Lebanon – Lebanese citizen and permanent United States resident Nizar Zakka, who was imprisoned for years in Iran, has been freed and is on his way back to his native Lebanon, officials have confirmed.
Zakka is set to return to Beirut on Tuesday, alongside Lebanon’s General Security Chief Abbas Ibrahim, who accompanied the former prisoner on a government jet.
Ibrahim told Reuters news agency the release was not based on a wider prisoner swap. He also denied information disseminated by semi-official Fars News Agency, which reported that Zakka would be transferred to Hezbollah.
General Security confirmed Zakka’s imminent return and said he was set to meet Lebanese President Michel Aoun at Baabda Palace.
Zakka, an information technology expert, disappeared in Tehran while attending a state-sponsored conference in September 2015.
According to a statement by his lawyer, Zakka was last seen leaving his hotel in a taxi to the airport to return to Beirut. But he never boarded his flight. In November 2015, Iranian state television announced Zakka was in Iranian custody and accused of espionage.
The statement claimed that Zakka, who graduated from the Riverside Military Academy of Gainesville in Georgia, had “deep links” with US military and intelligence agencies.
In 2016, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison and ordered to pay a fine of $4.2m for espionage.
In the statement published on Iran’s Mizan News Agency on Tuesday, Iran judiciary spokesperson Gholam Hussein Esmaeili said Zakka’s release was in line with Iran’s Constitution, which allows for the conditional release of prisoners sentenced up to 10 years, if they had served at least a third of the sentence and shown good behaviour.
The spokesperson also mentioned key ally Hezbollah’s request to expedite his release. The conditions of Zakka’s release were not specified.
Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Aoun have yet to comment on the developments. However, Aoun’s office told Al Jazeera that an official statement will be made upon Zakka’s arrival in Beirut
Paula Yacoubian, an independent MP who sits on the Lebanese parliament’s foreign affairs commitee, described Zakka’s case as “mysterious”.
“I hope that things will be clearer later on, and we can really understand what happened with him and whether he’s innocent or not,” she told Al Jazeera.
Tara Sepehri Far, Iran Researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW), welcomed his release and said the detention was part of a pattern of detentions of foreign nationals and dual citizens that were “politically motivated.”
“The court sessions behind closed doors, [and] there’s very little transparency, ” Sepehri Far told Al Jazeera. “The branch of the court … is known for its lack of fair trial standards and blatantly ignoring due process standards.”
She added that they have documented several cases of detainees who brought accusations of torture that were “blatantly ignored.”
Zakka was held at Tehran’s Evin prison, a facility established in 1972. Human Rights Watch (HRW) and other rights groups have reported allegations of torture and ill-treatment there, including solitary confinement and denial of access to medical care.
Zakka’s family and friends, who have been campaigning for his release, have claimed he went on hunger strike numerous times and was tortured.
Sarah Fallah, a Lebanese lawyer who represented Zakka, told HRW in March 2016 that Iranian authorities refused to let her visit her client.
Over the past four years, Zakka’s family members have repeatedly called on the Lebanese government to negotiate for his release.
The US government has also been vocal in calling for Zakka’s release. Both the Congress and the Senate passed resolutions in 2017 calling for the unconditional release of US citizens and residents held in Iran, including the Lebanese national.
More recently, in December 2018, then-US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley endorsed and republished a letter by several families of held US nationals and residents in Iran, including Zakka’s relatives.