London, 20 Sep – In an article for U.S. News by Jon Gambrell, of the Associated Press, DUBAI, United Arab Emirates, he writes about Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese technology expert and advocate for Internet freedom, who is also a U.S. permanent resident. He has been detained in Iran for a year over spying allegations, and has now been sentenced to 10 years in prison and a $4.2 million fine.
Zakka, whose nonprofit group IJMA3 did work for the U.S. government, and whose arrest and imprisonment comes as Iranian officials attend the United Nations General Assembly this week in New York, is an example “of the challenge faced by Western governments and those wanting warmer ties with Iran, where hard-liners in the security forces and judiciary target dual nationals and others in secret trials,” writes Gambrell.
“There’s no regard for any international order, any international agreement or any international state of relations that they care about,” said former Virginia state legislator David Ramadan, who co-founded a group called Friends of Nizar Zakka.
Jason Poblete, a U.S. lawyer representing Zakka, said in a statement issued early Tuesday said that a Revolutionary Court in Tehran handed down the sentence in a 60-page verdict that Zakka’s supporters have yet to see.
According to Amnesty International, Zakka had only two court hearings before the ruling, and he received limited legal assistance. His case was handled by a closed-door tribunal, which hears cases involving alleged attempts to overthrow the government.
His case was heard by Judge Abolghassem Salavati, who is known for his tough sentences, and has presided over other politically charged cases, including one in which he sentenced Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian to prison. Rezaian was freed in January as part of a prisoner swap between Iran and the U.S., which also freed three other Iranian-Americans.
Gambrel writes, “There was no mention of Zakka’s sentence in Iranian state media. Iran’s U.N. mission did not respond to a request for comment.”
Zakka, hold U.S. resident status, and lives in Washington. He leads the Arab ICT Organization, or IJMA3, an industry consortium from 13 countries, advocating for information technology. During his fifth trip to Iran, Zakka was invited to attend a conference where President Hassan Rouhani spoke about providing more economic opportunities for women and sustainable development.
Zakka disappeared Sept. 18, 2015. Iranian state television aired a report on November 3, announcing his arrest, and calling him a spy with “deep links” with U.S. intelligence services.
Iranian authorities have been unclear about their decision to detain Zakka. In May, The Associated Press reported that the IJMA3 organization had received some $730,000 in contracts and grants from both the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, USAID, since 2009.
According to Gambrell, “Zakka’s supporters have written Secretary of State John Kerry stating that Zakka traveled to Iran ‘with the knowledge and approval of the U.S. State Department, and his trip was funded by grants’ from it. Those assertions could not be verified by the AP, and Zakka’s friends say they can’t obtain copies of the contract from the State Department due to federal regulations.” Further, “Neither American nor Lebanese officials, who the U.S. says are responsible for providing consular assistance to Zakka, have publicly acknowledged Zakka’s work with the U.S. government.”
The State Department declared itself “troubled” by Zakka’s sentence and demanded his immediate release. “We reaffirm our calls on Iran to respect and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms, cease any arbitrary or politically motivated detentions and ensure fair and transparent judicial proceedings in all criminal prosecutions,” they said in a statement.
Ramadan, co-founder of Friends of Nizar Zakka, criticized the State Department’s conduct in Zakka’s case, saying it “refuses to do anything for him.”
Gambrell cites others known to have been detained in Iran since the nuclear deal include:
• Homa Hoodfar , an Iranian-Canadian woman who is a retired professor at Montreal’s Concordia University;
• Siamak Namazi , an Iranian-American businessman who has advocated for closer ties between the two countries and whose father is also held in Tehran;
• Baquer Namazi, a former Iranian and U.N. official in his 80s who is the father of Siamak;
• Robin Shahini , an Iranian-American detained while visiting family who previously had made online comments criticizing Iran’s human rights record; and
• Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe , a British-Iranian woman sentenced to five years in prison on allegations of planning the “soft toppling” of Iran’s government while traveling with her young daughter.
• Still missing is former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who vanished in Iran in 2007 while on an unauthorized CIA mission.