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

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.”


Amid turmoil, Lebanese Forces ministers quit coalition government

Updated 20 October 2019

Amid turmoil, Lebanese Forces ministers quit coalition government

  • The Lebanese Forces party has four ministers in the Hariri-led ruling coalition
  • Protesters in Beirut, Jounieh, Tripoli and Tyre demand that others remaining in power also quit

BEIRUT: Lebanon's "strong republic" bloc quit the coalition government on Saturday as tens of thousands of people took to the streets for a third day of protests against tax increases and alleged official corruption.
Samir Geagea, head of the Lebanese forces party, said his group was resigning from the government ahead of the 72-hour deadline that Prime Minister Saad Hariri gave to partners in power to help make his reform programs work.
Geagea's Christian party has four ministers in the coalition government, namely: Ghassan Hasbani, Kamil Abu Suleiman, Richard Qayomjian and May Chidiac.
"Since people have lost confidence in the political class, and since the people in the street represent all segments of society and because all components of the government does not want serious and actual reform, we were the first party to act with transparency and when discussing the 2020 budget, we demanded a basket of immediate reforms, but we did not feel the seriousness required," Geagea told a late night press conference that extended into the early hours of Sunday.
“We are now convinced that the government is unable to take the necessary steps to save the situation,” said Geagea. “Therefore, the bloc decided to ask its ministers to resign from the government.”
He denied "any talk of an agreement with Prime Minister Hariri regarding the resignation of ministers."
Geagea's announcement was welcomed by the protesters, who are still sit in yards in Beirut, Jounieh, Tripoli and Tyre. They demanded the resignation of the remaining in power.

'Sweeping overhaul needed'
The protesters took to the streets despite calls for calm from politicians and dozens of arrests on Friday. Many waved billowing Lebanese flags and insisted the protests should remain peaceful and non-sectarian.
The demonstrators are demanding a sweeping overhaul of Lebanon’s political system, citing grievances ranging from austerity measures to poor infrastructure.
They have blocked main roads and threatened to topple the country’s fragile coalition government.
Most Lebanese politicians have uncharacteristically admitted the demonstrations are spontaneous, rather than blaming outside influences.
Demonstrators in Beirut celebrated the news of the coalition party’s resignation, calling on other blocs to leave the government. In Tripoli, they let off fireworks.
“I am thinking maybe it’s better all the government resign,” said one protester, 24-year-old Ali. “I am thinking maybe it’s better to go to another election as people already woke up.”
The army on Saturday called on protesters to “express themselves peacefully without harming public and private property.”
Saturday evening, thousands were packed for a third straight night into the Riyadh Al-Solh Square in central Beirut, despite security forces having used tear gas and water cannons to disperse similar crowds a day before.

AI slams 'use of excessive force'
Amnesty International said the security forces’ reaction was excessive, pointing out that the vast majority of protesters were peaceful.
“The intention was clearly to prevent protesters gathering — in a clear violation of the right to peaceful assembly,” it said.
Small groups of protesters have also damaged shop fronts and blocked roads by burning tires and other obstacles.
The Internal Security Forces said 70 arrests were made Friday on accusations of theft and arson.
But all of those held at the main police barracks were released Saturday, the National News Agency (NNA) said.
The demonstrations first erupted on Thursday, sparked by a proposed 20 US-cent tax on calls via messaging apps such as WhatsApp.
Such calls are the main method of communication for many Lebanese and, despite the government’s swift abandonment of the tax, the demonstrations quickly swelled into the largest in years.
Prime Minister Hariri has given his deeply divided coalition until Monday evening to give back a reform package aimed at shoring up the government’s finances and securing desperately needed economic assistance from donors.
He held a series of meetings Saturday regarding the situation, NNA said.
Hariri’s political rival, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, told protesters Saturday their “message was heard loudly.”
But he warned against demanding the resignation of the government — saying it could take a long time to form a new one and solve the crisis.
The current unity government has the backing of most Lebanese political parties, including Hezbollah.

Protesters attacked in Tyre
In the southern port city of Tyre, supporters of Shia politician and speaker of parliament Nabih Berri attacked protesters Saturday, a witness said, a day after demonstrators had accused him of corruption.
His Amal political party condemned the attack and called for an investigation.
More than a quarter of the Lebanese population lives below the poverty line, according to the World Bank.
Many of the country’s senior politicians came to prominence during the country’s 15-year civil war, which ended in 1990.
The promised austerity moves are essential if Lebanon is to unlock $11 billion in economic assistance pledged by international donors last year.
Growth has plummeted in recent years, with political deadlock compounded by the impact of eight years of war in neighboring Syria.
Lebanon’s public debt stands at around $86 billion — more than 150 percent of gross domestic product — according to the finance ministry.

(With AFP)