Nizar Zakka: Iran Sentences U.S. Resident Who Promoted Internet Freedom To 10 Years In Jail

Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese national who gained permanent residency in the U.S., has been sentenced to 10 years in jail in Iran about a year after he disappeared in Tehran during a trip.

Zakka’s legal representative said he was sentenced to 10 years in prison and fined $4.2 million after a closed-door trial at a Revolutionary Court in Tehran, AP reported.

Zakka, an information technology (IT) expert, is the secretary-general of the Arab ICT Organization (also known as IJMA3). The organization, which operates in up to 13 countries, has reportedly received several contracts and grants from the U.S. government to promote IT in the Middle East.

Nizar Zakka, who is accused of being an American spy, went missing after traveling to Iran in September 2015 to make a presentation at a conference in Tehran. Many high-ranking Iranian government officials including Iranian President Hassan Rouhani were present at the conference billed “ICT for Women’s Empowerment.”

According to a website created to advocate for Zakka’s release, he was arrested while heading to the airport to board a plane to Beirut after the conference.

It is unclear what promoted Iran’s Revolutionary Guards to arrest Zakka. He had been visiting the country on the invitation of Shahindokht Molaverdi, Iran’s vice president of Women and Family Affairs, PJ Media reported.

In November 2015, Iranian state media officially accused Nizar Zakka of being an America spy. As part of the evidence against him, a picture of Zakka and three other men marching in military uniform was released. However, the president of the Riverside Military Academy in Georgia, where Zakka schooled, has confirmed that the photo was taken during a homecoming event at the high school’s military academy, AP reported.

Zakka’s family and friends, who have complained that he has not received any consular assistance from the U.S. and Lebanon, wrote to the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry earlier this year to ask for help for his case.

“Nizar was traveling in Iran with the knowledge and approval of the U.S. State Department, and his trip was funded with a grant from your agency,” the letter reads. “We believe that the State Department has a moral obligation to help Nizar in his time of need. Time is of the essence; he has been imprisoned for over six months with no legal or consular assistance.”

Zakka’s mother, who died earlier this year, had appealed to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to release her son so that she could meet him one last time, PJ Media reported.

In June, after Nizar Zakka’ trial was postponed; his family complained that his health had deteriorated, and he did not have any lawyer, Naharnet reported.

“Nizar does not have a lawyer due to the fact that the family has submitted a list containing the names of several lawyers of whom none has been accredited. They instead accepted someone whose objectivity was questioned by us and this is why we didn’t agree to his appointment,” Zakka’s nephew Marwan Abdullah said.

Last week, Amnesty International announced the conclusion of Nizar Zakka’s trial after “two brief sessions” before a court in Tehran. The human rights group also stated that Zakka’s health is deteriorating and he has been denied access to medical care.

Amnesty International revealed that Nizar Zakka’s lawyer was prevented from meeting him privately after his appointment in January until April. Ahead of his trial, Zakka’s lawyer was reportedly not well prepared as he had been prevented from accessing his case file. His communication with Zakka was also restricted.

Zakka’s supporters claim that he was sentenced by the notorious Judge Abolghassem Salavati, AP reported. Salavati is the same judge who sentenced Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian in 2015. Rezaian was released in January with other four Americans imprisoned in Iran in a prisoner exchange deal.

Judge Salavati is one of six judges in Iran that human rights groups have accused of cracking down on free speech and political activism in the country, the Guardian reported.

[Featured Image by Courtesy of Friends of Nizar Zakka group via AP]