Released Lebanese businessman Zakka: ‘I was virtually sentenced by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard’

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, right, meets with Nizar Zakka at the governmental palace in Beirut, Lebanon, on Tuesday. (AP)
Updated 13 June 2019
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Released Lebanese businessman Zakka: ‘I was virtually sentenced by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard’

  • He was in Iran at an invitation from the country’s vice president to participate in a conference

BEIRUT: Nizar Zakka, who has barely been out of Tehran’s Evin Prison 24 hours after spending nearly four years in it, still feels the impact of what happened to him.

After his release, Zakka summarized what happened to him — his tears streamed down his face more than once during the interview.

Zakka said he visited Iran only four times previously on official invitations, and on a fifth after an invitation from the country’s vice president to participate in a conference on informatics. 

“Three days after my participation in the conference, I did not feel that I was an unwanted guest and had not received any remarks. On my way back to the airport, a car with people in civilian clothes intercepted us. They took me out of the car and spoke to me in English saying that no one would see me anymore,” he told Arab News.

“They arrested me, and said that they would kill me. There was no explanation for what happened, and I was tortured. They asked me to say on camera that I was working with the Americans and I planned on overthrowing the regime in Iran. I was there because of an official invitation. So, I refused their request. I felt that if it was going to end in death, why not resist what was happening to me unjustly?

“They knew that I was innocent, but it seems that they wanted to send a message. The kidnappers were members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and they wanted to show that they could do what they wanted. I was an activist in the field of human rights and had free access to the internet, and expressed my opinion at a conference in Tehran. They exploited this as a weak link for international companies, to send them a message that they are forbidden to enter Iran. They succeeded, they stopped coming to Iran — they feared their safety.”

Sham trial

Regarding the trial he was subjected to, he smiled. “It was only for show. I stood in front of the judge and they began to mock me. One of them said that I was detained for inciting the revolution in Ukraine. I laughed and told the judge they had the wrong file. The representative of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps read out the accusations, without asking me a single question, and that’s how I was sentenced. The cell I stayed in had 50 detainees living in the worst conditions.”

He said that in the cell, he knew Americans Ziyu Wang and Karen Godafari, former Iranian Vice President Hamid Mashaki, and Mahdi Rafsanjani, the son of former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani. He said that he also met “an Iraqi detainee and many Iranians, Kurds and Arabs. There were many Iranian diplomats, all accused of treachery because it is the easiest charge.

“Every person who was arrested was subjected to physical torture of all kinds, which later turned into a psychological torture. I slept every night hoping not to wake up the next day.”

As for his contact with the outside world, Zakka said: “At first they allowed us to call family members, but only for 4 minutes that would go by without speaking, and later, when they transferred me to the public prison, those who ran it allowed us a 15-minute phone call. They dealt with us more compassionately than the Revolutionary Guard did.

I was physically and mentally tortured to a point where I wished for death.

Nizar Zakka, Lebanese businessman

“A year ago, I met with the director general of the Lebanese Directorate of General Security, but nothing happened. I lost hope. I was informed that Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil spoke about my release date during Ramadan. The month went by, then Eid came, and nothing happened. Two days ago, those who imprisoned me came to tell me that I would be released.”

Zakka believes that the reason for his change of fortunes was the internal discussions in the Iranian regime over how to proceed with new Lebanese President Michel Aoun. “The Iranians wanted to present a gift to Aoun. It (his release) may have been a message to Lebanon, but perhaps there is something else. The Japanese prime minister (Shinzo Abe), who comes to Tehran, is the son of a foreign minister (Shintaro Abe) who played the biggest role in ending the war between Iran and Iraq.”

Aoun has so far avoided visiting Iran, despite several calls for him to do so. Political sources in Beirut believe that Aoun “takes into account the international community opposing Iran, and the internal Lebanese position critical of its interference in Arab countries.”

Celebrations

Zakka said that after announcing his release, he was accompanied by several Iranian civilians to the market and bought a cake to celebrate. 

They also took him to the carpet market and asked him to choose the most expensive one. They chose one for $10,000 as a gift, and officers from the Revolutionary Guard Corps and the prosecutor’s office were asked to apologize to Zakka. A red carpet was also laid out at a private airport in Tehran as Zakka left Iran.

When asked if he had received calls from the US Embassy in Beirut after his release, Zakka said: “There are friends at the embassy who are calling to check.”

When he was arrested, he was 48 years old. Today he is 52. “Four years of my life were lost,” he lamented. “I watched my children grow up. I want to go to the US to see them. I miss them so much.”


‘Hypocrite’ Rouhani rejects war as Iran’s drones target Saudi civilians

Updated 19 June 2019
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‘Hypocrite’ Rouhani rejects war as Iran’s drones target Saudi civilians

  • Tehran regime has fanned sectarian flames in region for four decades, analyst tells Arab News
  • IRGC chief says Iranian missiles capable of hitting "carriers in the sea" with great precision

JEDDAH: Iran “will not wage war against any nation,” President Hassan Rouhani said on Tuesday — hours after two drones launched by Iran-backed Houthi militias in Yemen targeted civilians in southern Saudi Arabia.

Rouhani's statement sounded a note of restraint after the United States announced more troop deployments to the Middle East.

“Iran will not wage war against any nation,” he said in a speech broadcast live on state TV. “Despite all of the Americans’ efforts in the region and their desire to cut off our ties with all of the world and their desire to keep Iran secluded, they have been unsuccessful.”

But he was also contradicted by the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Gen. Hossein Salami, who said Iran’s ballistic missile technology had changed the balance of power in the Middle East.

“These missiles can hit, with great precision, carriers in the sea ... they are domestically produced and are difficult to intercept and hit with other missiles,” Salami said.

He said Iran's ballistic missile technology had changed the balance of power in the Middle East.

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Before both men spoke, Saudi air defenses intercepted and shot down two Houthi drones packed with explosives. One targeted a civilian area in the southern city of Abha, and the second was shot down in Yemeni air space. There were no casualties, the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen said.

Rouhani’s offer to avoid war was “the height of hypocrisy,” the Saudi political analyst and international relations scholar Dr. Hamdan Al-Shehri told Arab News.

“Rouhani is the biggest hypocrite in the world,” he said. “On the one hand, he is saying that Iran does not seek a conflict with anybody, and on the other it is launching attacks through its militias on oil tankers, oil pipelines, civilian airports and holy cities.

“This is nothing but the height of hypocrisy. Who does he think he is fooling with those words? Why are they enriching uranium? Why are they seeking nuclear bombs? What have they done over the past four decades? They have only caused trouble. They have only fanned sectarian flames in the region.”

The Saudi Cabinet, meeting in Jeddah, also condemned the Houthi attacks on Saudi civilians, and last week’s terrorist attacks on two tankers in the Gulf of Oman, widely blamed on Iran. 

 

Confrontation fears

Fears of a confrontation between Iran and its long-time foe the United States have mounted since Thursday when two oil tankers were attacked near the strategic Strait of Hormuz shipping lane, which Washington blamed on Tehran.

Iran denied involvement in the attacks and said on Monday it would soon breach limits on how much enriched uranium it can stockpile under a 2015 nuclear deal, which had sought to limit its nuclear capabilities.

Exceeding the uranium cap at the heart of the accord would prompt a diplomatic crisis, forcing the other signatories, which include China, Russia and European powers, to confront Iran.

The standoff drew a call for caution from China. Its top diplomat warned that the world should not open a “Pandora’s Box” in the Middle East, as he denounced US pressure on Iran and called on it not to drop out of the landmark nuclear deal.

Russia urged restraint on all sides.

On Monday, Iranian officials made several assertive comments about security, including the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, who said Tehran was responsible for security in the Gulf and urged US forces to leave the region.

Acting US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan on Monday announced the deployment of about 1,000 more troops to the Middle East for what he said were defensive purposes, citing concerns about a threat from Iran.

The new US deployment is in addition to a 1,500-troop increase announced last month in response to tanker attacks in May. Washington previously tightened sanctions, ordering all countries and companies to halt imports of Iranian oil or be banished from the global financial system.


'Nuclear blackmail'

Iran’s announcement on Monday that it would soon breach limits on how much enriched uranium it can stockpile under the deal was denounced by a White House National Security Council spokesman as “nuclear blackmail.”

The move further undermines the nuclear pact, but Rouhani said on Monday the collapse of the deal would not be in the interests of the region or the world.

The nuclear deal seeks to head off any pathway to an Iranian nuclear bomb in return for the removal of most international sanctions.

Speaking in Beijing, Chinese State Councilor Wang Yi said the United States should not use “extreme pressure” to resolve issues with Iran.

Wang told reporters China, a close energy partner of Iran, was “of course, very concerned” about the situation in the Gulf and with Iran, and called on all sides to ease tension.

“We call on all sides to remain rational and exercise restraint, and not take any escalatory actions that irritate regional tensions, and not open a Pandora’s box,” Wang said.

“In particular, the US side should alter its extreme pressure methods,” Wang said. “Any unilateral behavior has no basis in international law. Not only will it not resolve the problem, it will only create an even greater crisis.”

Wang also said the Iran nuclear deal was the only feasible way to resolve its nuclear issue, and urged Iran to be prudent.

European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said the EU would only react to any breach if the International Atomic Energy Agency formally identified one.

The Trump administration says the deal, negotiated by Democratic President Barack Obama, was flawed as it is not permanent, does not address Iran’s missile program and does not punish it for waging proxy wars in other Middle East countries.