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U.S. resident Nizar Zakka, freed by Iran, denounces "arbitrary detention and a show trial"

Nizar Zakka (C), a Lebanese national and U.S. resident arrested in Iran in 2015 and sentenced to 10 years in jail on espionage charges, gives a press conference after he was freed, at the presidential palace in Baabda, east of the Lebanese capital Beirut, June 11, 2019. Getty

Beirut -- A U.S. permanent resident and Lebanese businessman who was released from Iran following several years imprisonment said Tuesday that he was subjected to "kidnapping, arbitrary detention and a show trial." In his first statements following his release, Nizar Zakka, an internet freedom advocate who was arrested in 2015, said he was more determined than ever to fight for freedom of expression.

Zakka arrived in Lebanon on Tuesday following his release in Iran, touching down at Beirut's Rafik Hariri airport aboard a private jet, accompanied by the chief of Lebanon's General Security Directorate, Maj. Gen. Ibrahim Abbas, who traveled to Tehran to bring him home.

Zakka was imprisoned in Iran on spying charges in 2015. He was released amid heightened tensions between Iran and the U.S. after President Donald Trump withdrew America from Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers.

The White House said it was "thankful" for Zakka's release, but wanted to see other Americans who are detained in Iran released as well.

Zakka headed from the airport directly to the presidential palace to meet Lebanese President Michel Aoun, who had personally requested his release.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun (R) shakes hands with Nizar Zakka (C), a Lebanese national and US resident arrested in Iran in 2015 and sentenced to 10 years in jail on espionage charges, after he was freed at the presidential palace in Baabda, east of the capital Beirut on June 11, 2019. Getty

There has been speculation that his release is part of a wider deal between the U.S. and Iran.

Zakka told reporters at the presidential palace that the initiative to release him was a local one, made in Lebanon. But he acknowledged that it served to de-escalate tensions between the U.S. and Iran

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said: "We're thankful for the release of the individual in Iran… The big question is, there's several others and we want to see those people released as well."

She declined to say whether the U.S. government was involved in securing Zakka's release.

U.S. government contracts

In 2016, Iran sentenced Zakka to 10 years in prison. Authorities accused him of being an American spy, allegations vigorously rejected by his family and associates.

Zakka, who lives in Washington and holds resident status in the U.S., leads the Arab ICT Organization, or IJMA3, an industry consortium from 13 countries that advocates for information technology in the region.

In 2016, The Associated Press reported that Zakka's supporters wrote to then-Secretary of State John Kerry, stating Zakka travelled to Iran "with the knowledge and approval of the U.S. State Department, and his trip was funded by grants" from the department.

Zakka's IJMA3 organization had received at least $730,000 in contracts and grants since 2009 from both the State Department and USAID, the lead American government agency fighting poverty and promoting democracy across the world.

The State Department has yet to respond to a years-old request from the AP for information about those grants.

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