DUBAI (Reuters) – A Lebanese citizen with U.S. residency detained in Iran since 2015 may be freed in the coming hours, a senior Lebanese security official said, and an Iranian news agency said he would be handed over to the Iranian-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah.
Lebanon’s president and foreign minister have urged Tehran to grant an amnesty to Nizar Zakka, who was sentenced in 2016 to 10 years in prison and a $4.2 million fine for “collaborating against the state”.
Lebanon’s internal security chief Abbas Ibrahim was in Tehran to negotiate Zakka’s release on Monday, and he would be freed late on Monday or early on Tuesday and put in Ibrahim’s custody, the security official said.
However, Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency, citing an unnamed source, said he would be handed to Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shi’ite group founded in 1982 by Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards Corps.
“The move will take place in the next few hours. This is done solely because of the respect for and dignity of (Hezbollah leader) Hassan Nasrallah,” the source told Fars.
Hezbollah is the most powerful armed force in Lebanon as well as being part of the governing coalition in Beirut. Fars did not say whether Hezbollah would free Zakka once he was in Lebanon, should he indeed be handed over to the Shi’ite group.
Zakka, an information technology specialist with permanent residency in the United States, vanished in Iran in 2015 after being invited by a government official to attend a conference there. Iranian media said later he had been detained by the Revolutionary Guards for alleged ties to U.S. security services.
State media reported in 2017 that he had lost an appeal against his conviction. The U.S. State Department had in 2016 called for his release, saying he was unjustly held.
Last week Lebanon’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that efforts to secure Zakka’s release had been successful.
In April this year, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told Reuters he was proposing “a serious dialogue” with the United States on a possible prisoner swap, though he did not say whether Zakka might be included.
Iran says a number of its nationals are being held unjustly in the West, including at least 56 in the United States, and has asked for their immediate release.
A year after a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and major powers ushered in a wary thaw between the United States and Tehran, Iranian authorities freed five U.S. citizens in a prisoner exchange. However, U.S.-Iranian tensions have risen anew since Washington pulled out of the nuclear pact in 2018.
Reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Dubai and Laila Bassam in Beirut; Editing by Mark Heinrich