TEHRAN – Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese national and permanent US resident, has been released by Iran, which accused him of spying for the United States, his attorney, Jason Poblete, said Tuesday.
“After more than 1,350 days in captivity in Iran, we have received excellent news: Mr. Nizar Zakka is a free man,” Poblete said in a statement.
Zakka, who was arrested by Iran in 2015, is aboard a plane bound for Lebanon, NBC News reported.
“Nizar looks forward to reuniting with family and friends. Nizar expresses his sincerest thanks to those who never forgot him,” Poblete said.
The US and Lebanese governments worked for months to win the release of the 52-year-old Zakka, an information technology specialist who traveled to Tehran to attend a conference at the invitation of the Iranian government.
Zakka was arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison. The Lebanese national and his family have denied that he was engaged in espionage.
Iranian judicial branch spokesman Gholamhosein Esmaili confirmed Zakka’s release but said no political deal was involved.
“This is totally about the judicial process and not a political matter,” Esmaili told the semi-official news agency ISNA, referring to speculation about the possible reasons for Zakka’s release.
Esmaili also denied that Zakka, whose release was approved on Tuesday by an Iranian court, was set free as part of a prisoner exchange.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun and Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia group, an ally of Tehran, supported Zakka’s release, Esmaili said.
In March, Christine Levinson, Babak Namazi and Omar Zakka, the relatives of Americans being held in prisoner Iran, accused the Trump administration of not doing enough to bring about the release of their family members.
Zakka’s son, Omar, said that his father underwent physical and psychological torture to make him confess to being a spy.
In March, Omar Zakka and the relatives of Americans in captivity in Iran appeared before the House Subcommittee on the Middle East North Africa and International Terrorism.
“The feeling of dread we experience if we miss my father’s call or if we do not hear from him for three days is unbearable. We are tormented by the fear that something terrible has happened to him or will happen to him,” Zakka told lawmakers.
Levinson, the wife of former FBI agent Robert Levinson, expressed frustration over her failed attempts to win her husband’s release.
“Despite trying to get him home by every means possible I am absolutely no closer than I was when he first went missing on March 9, 2007. I hold the Iranian government responsible, but I believe the U.S. government is at fault as well,” Levinson said.
Robert Levinson is the longest-held American captive in Iran.
Babak Namazi’s brother, Nizar, was taken captive by Iran in 2015 and his father, Baquer, was detained in 2016.
“As the only capable family member living in freedom, I must do all I can to save my beloved father and brother,” Namazi told Congress.
Dozens of people, including US citizens, dual US-Iranian citizens, British nationals and Canadian citizens, are serving prison sentences for espionage in Iran.
Tensions between Tehran and Washington, which have not had diplomatic relations in four decades, have risen in the past month due to the sanctions imposed by the US on Iran and the Trump administration’s decision to expand the American military presence in the Middle East.