Lebanese businessman Nizar Zakka arrives in Beirut after Iran release

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Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese national and US resident arrested in 2015 and sentenced to 10 years in jail on espionage charges, flashes the victory gesture at the presidential palace in Baabda, east of the capital Beirut. (AFP)
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Freed Lebanese businessman Nizar Zakka with Major General Abbas Ibrahim, Lebanon's internal security chief, aboard a plane after being released by Iran. (Lebanese General Security Directorate/Reuters)
Updated 12 June 2019

Lebanese businessman Nizar Zakka arrives in Beirut after Iran release

  • ‘The relevant court has agreed to Nizar Zakka’s conditional release and he will be handed over to Lebanese authorities’
  • Zakka was arrested in September 2015 during a visit to Iran, where he was convicted the following July

BEIRUT: Iran on Tuesday freed a Lebanese man detained in 2015 on charges of spying for the United States, a gesture that comes amid soaring tensions between Tehran and Washington.
A US resident in his 50s, Nizar Zakka was arrested in September 2015 during a visit to Iran, where he was convicted the following July.
He is the head of The Arab ICT Organization, a non-profit that advocates the growth and development of information and communications technology in the Middle East.
Before his arrest, he had been taking part in a conference in Tehran at the invitation of Shahindokht Molaverdi, then vice president for women and family affairs, according to his family.
He was stopped on his way to the airport, his family and lawyer have said.
At the time, Iranian state television said he was accused of “deep ties to the military and intelligence services of the United States.”
It broadcast photographs of a man in military uniform it said was of Zakka at a US base.
On Tuesday, Zakka arrived in Lebanon, after his release by Iranian authorities.
He was escorted back to his native country by Lebanon’s General Security chief Abbas Ibrahim, who was in Tehran one day earlier, according to the security service.
In a speech at Lebanon’s presidential palace, Zakka declined to elaborate on the circumstances behind his arrest but dismissed the case against him.
“There was no espionage,” he said after meeting President Michel Aoun, accusing Tehran of “kidnapping him” on false charges and staging a “show trial.”
For his part, the general security chief denied speculation Iran’s Lebanese ally Hezbollah played a primary role in brokering Zakka’s release.
“The issue was resolved at the request of the president,” Ibrahim told reporters.
“Hezbollah definitely played a role but the basis (for the release) was a request from the president.”
His comments came in response to a report by Iran’s Fars news agency on Monday that Zakka’s release followed “the request and mediation” of Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah.
“Zaka has been freed and extradited, thanks to Nasrallah’s mediation and the respect Tehran pays to him,” it said, citing an “informed source.”
Tehran has direct control over Hezbollah, its main proxy in the region.
Earlier on Tuesday, a spokesman for Iran’s judiciary Gholamhossein Esmaili said Aoun had requested Zakka’s release “in writing” and Hezbollah had said it would be “expedient.”
“This is an absolutely judicial procedure and no political issue has been involved,” Esmaili was quoted as saying by Iran’s Tasnim news agency.
The US State Department had also called for Zakka to be freed, saying he was unjustly held. Following his arrival in Beirut, the US applauded Zakka’s release by Iran as a “great day” for him and his family and said it hoped the move was a positive sign for Americans detained by Tehran.
“It is without a doubt a great day for Mr. Zakka, his family, and all those who have supported him during his unlawful imprisonment,” a State Department spokeswoman said. “We hope that Mr. Zakka’s release is a positive sign for American detainees in Iran,” she said.
Meanwhile, Zakka’s lawyer appealed for help for other detainees being held in Iranian prisons following his client’s release.
“Nizar expresses his sincerest thanks to those who never forgot him,” Jason Poblete said in an emailed statement.
“Nizar also wants to remind those who can help that there remain many Americans... and other foreigners in Iranian prisons. Nizar grew close to some of these men; they need help and want to come home.”
Iran and the United States broke diplomatic ties in 1980 in the aftermath of the Islamic revolution. Relations have deteriorated sharply since US President Donald Trump took office in January 2017.
At the end of 2017, an Iranian court upheld Zakka’s 10-year jail sentence as well as those of an American and two Iranian-Americans accused of “collaboration” with the United States.
Zakka’s brother Ziad has previously accused Lebanese officials of neglecting his case.
The decision to release him comes amid a stand-off that has been simmering since the United States last year withdrew from the 2015 nuclear treaty which Iran reached with major world powers.
Tensions have intensified since April when the US added Iran’s Revolutionary Guards to its blacklist of “terrorist” organizations and strengthened sanctions against the Islamic republic.
The standoff has worsened recent weeks, after the US military announced it was dispatching reinforcements to the Middle East in response to alleged “Iranian threats” as well as the sabotage of four ships at the entrance to the Gulf on May 12.
Washington and Riyadh have accused Tehran of being behind those attacks, a charge it has dismissed as “laughable.”


Camel herding in Western Sahara a passion with pedigree

Updated 21 November 2019

Camel herding in Western Sahara a passion with pedigree

  • In the Western Sahara, a local adage holds that he who has no camel, has nothing
  • "Camels can endure everything: sun, wind, sand and lack of water, and if they could talk, you’d easily hear how intelligent they are,” says herder

DAKHLA, Western Sahara: In the Oued Eddahab desert in Western Sahara, Habiboullah Dlimi raises dairy and racing camels just like his ancestors used to — but with a little help from modern technology.
His animals roam free in the desert and are milked as camels always have been, by hand, at dawn and dusk.
When camels “feed on wild plants and walk all day, the milk is much better,” said the 59-year-old herder, rhapsodizing about the benefits of the nutrient-rich drink, known as the “source of life” for nomads.
But Dlimi no longer lives with his flock.
He lives in town with his family. His camels are watched over by hired herders and Dlimi follows GPS coordinates across the desert in a 4X4 vehicle to reach them.
He is reticent when asked about the size of his herd. “That would bring bad luck,” he said.
He prefers to speak of the gentleness and friendliness of the animals he knows like his own children.
“Camels can endure everything: sun, wind, sand and lack of water, and if they could talk, you’d easily hear how intelligent they are,” he said.

A camel is silhouetted against the sunset in the desert near Dakhla in Morocco-administered Western Sahara, on Oct. 13, 2019. (AFP / FADEL SENNA)


"The desert knows me"
Dlimi comes from a long line of desert dwellers from the Ouled Dlimi tribe.
As tradition dictates, he lists his ancestors going back five generations when introducing himself.
“I know the desert and the desert knows me,” he said.
Like elsewhere, the nomads of Western Sahara are settling, following a shift from rural to urban living.
“Young people prefer to stay in town,” Dlimi said, and herders now mostly come from neighboring Mauritania, whose desert north is traversed by caravans of up to a thousand camels.
Even they “often demand to work in areas covered by (mobile phone) network signal,” he added.
The population of the nearby town of Dakhla has tripled to 100,000 in 20 years, with growth driven by fishing, tourism and greenhouse farming encouraged by Morocco.
In this part of Western Sahara, development projects depend entirely on Rabat.
Morocco has controlled 80 percent of the former Spanish colony since the 1970s and wants to maintain it as an autonomous territory under its sovereignty.
The Polisario Front movement fought a war for independence from 1975 to 1991 and wants a referendum in which the people of Western Sahara choose between independence and integration with Morocco.
The United Nations has been trying to negotiate a political compromise for decades.
Like many in his tribe, Dlimi has family members on the other side of the Western Sahara Wall separating the Moroccan controlled areas from the Polisario controlled areas.
He favors loyalty to Morocco while others back independence, he said.
Tribal affiliation trumps politics, though.
“Tribes are tribes, it’s a social organization,” he said. “There are very strong links between us.”
To “preserve the past for the future,” Dlimi started a cultural association to conserve traditions from a time when there were no borders and “families followed the herds and the clouds.”

A camel herder guides his flock in the desert near Dakhla in Morocco-administered Western Sahara on Oct. 13, 2019. (AFP / FADEL SENNA)


The irony
While Dlimi loves the desert, he does have one complaint: “The camel dairy industry is valued everywhere in the world except here.”
Camel milk is trendy with health-conscious consumers and the lean meat is excellent, Dlimi claims.
Today though, it is small livestock farming that is the main agricultural focus, in response to what non-nomadic Moroccans tend to eat.
The 266,000 square kilometers (106,400 square miles) of Western Sahara under Moroccan control hosts some 6,000 herders, 105,000 camels, and 560,000 sheep and goats, according to figures from Rabat.
In other arid countries, including Saudi Arabia, intensive farming of camels has taken off.
But, while Moroccan authorities have undertaken several studies into developing Western Sahara’s camel industry, these have not so far been acted upon.
Regardless, a local adage holds that he who has no camel, has nothing.
“Some say that Saharans are crazy because when they have money they spend it on four feet,” Dlimi jokes.
For him, 20,000 dirhams ($2,000) spent on a camel is a safe investment.
But it is also a consuming passion.
His Facebook page and WhatsApp messages are filled with talk of camel husbandry techniques, research and racing.
Racing “is a pleasure and it pays,” Dlimi said.
Since the United Arab Emirates funded construction of a camel racing track at Tantan, 900 kilometers (560 miles) to the north, racing animals have appreciated in value and can sell for up to 120,000 dirhams, according to Dlimi.
To train his racing camels, Dlimi chases the young animals across the desert in his 4X4.
The technique has made him an eight-time champion in national competitions, he said.
But camels can be stubborn, Dlimi stressed, telling of how he once sold his best champion for a “very good price,” but the animal refused to race once it had changed hands.