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US resident jailed for 10 years over spying charges in Iran

A US permanent resident detained for a year in Iran over spying allegations has been sentenced to 10 years in prison and a $4.2 million fine.

world Updated: Sep 20, 2016 14:12 IST
AP
This March 6, 2013 handout file image shows Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese technology expert and advocate for Internet freedom, delivering a speech during the MENA ICT Forum conference in Jordan.
This March 6, 2013 handout file image shows Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese technology expert and advocate for Internet freedom, delivering a speech during the MENA ICT Forum conference in Jordan.(AP)

A US permanent resident detained for a year in Iran over spying allegations has been sentenced to 10 years in prison and a $4.2 million fine, his supporters said Tuesday, the latest in a wide crackdown in Iran on those with foreign ties following the country’s landmark nuclear deal with world powers.

The sentence for Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese citizen who advocates for internet freedom and whose non-profit group did work for the US government, comes ahead of Iranian officials attending the United Nations General Assembly this week in New York.

It also shows the challenge faced by Western governments and those wanting warmer ties with Iran, where hard-liners in the country’s security forces target dual nationals and others in secret trials.

“There’s no regard for any international order, any international agreement or any international state of relations that they care about,” said David Ramadan, a former Virginia state legislator who co-founded a group called Friends of Nizar Zakka.

A statement early Tuesday from Jason Poblete, a US lawyer representing Zakka, said a Revolutionary Court in Tehran handed down the sentence in a 60-page verdict that Zakka’s supporters have yet to see. Amnesty International has said Zakka had only two court hearings before the ruling and received only limited legal assistance before the court, a closed-door tribunal which handles cases involving alleged attempts to overthrow the government.

Supporters say Judge Abolghassem Salavati heard Zakka’s case. Salavati is known for his tough sentences and has heard other politically-charged cases, including one in which he sentenced Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian to prison. A prisoner swap in January between Iran and the US freed Rezaian and three other Iranian-Americans.

There was no mention of Zakka’s sentence in Iranian state media. Iran’s UN mission did not respond to a request for comment.

Zakka, who lives in Washington and holds resident status in the US, leads the Arab ICT Organisation, or IJMA3, an industry consortium from 13 countries that advocates for information technology in the region. Zakka disappeared Sept. 18, 2015, during his fifth trip to Iran. He had been invited to attend a conference at which President Hassan Rouhani spoke of providing more economic opportunities for women and sustainable development.

On Nov. 3, Iranian state television aired a report saying he was in custody and calling him a spy with “deep links” with US intelligence services. It also showed what it described as a damning photo of Zakka and three other men in army-style uniforms, two with flags and two with rifles on their shoulders. But that turned out to be from a homecoming event at Zakka’s prep school, the Riverside Military Academy in Georgia, according to the school’s president.

It’s unclear what prompted Iranian authorities to detain Zakka. The Associated Press reported in May that Zakka’s IJMA3 organisation had received at least $730,000 in contracts and grants since 2009 from both the US State Department and USAID, the lead American government agency fighting poverty and promoting democracy across the world.

Zakka’s supporters have written to secretary of State John Kerry stating that Zakka traveled to Iran “with the knowledge and approval of the US 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.

Neither American nor Lebanese officials, who the US says are responsible for providing consular assistance to Zakka, have publicly acknowledged Zakka’s work with the US government. The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment early Tuesday, but Ramadan said he still held them responsible for Zakka’s safety.

“The US State Department refuses to do anything for him,” he said.

Other 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

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 unauthorised CIA mission.