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Iran Releases Lebanese Businessman Jailed on Spy Charges


FILE --This March 6, 2013 handout file image provided by the Friends of Nizar Zakka, shows Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese technology expert and advocate for Internet freedom, delivering a speech during the MENA ICT Forum conference in Jordan.

Iran has released a Lebanese businessman who had been detained since 2015 on charges of spying for the United States.

Nizar Zakka, who also has U.S. residency, was released Tuesday and flown to Beirut, according to Iran's judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili.

Zakka was sentenced to 10 years in prison and hit with fine of more than $4 million "for collaborating against the state" of Iran.

After meeting with Lebanese President Michel Aoun, Zakka said, "There was no espionage."He accused Iran of kidnapping him on false charged and staging what he called a "show trial."

Zakka also denied reports that his release was part of a wider deal but suggested that it had helped avert further escalation in the region. "The initiative, from beginning to end, was born in Lebanon. ... But I won't deny that this initiative had positive results on the region and appears to have stopped much of what might have happened,'' he told reporters.

When Zakka was arrested, Iranian state media said he was accused of "deep ties to the military and intelligence services of the United States."

Iranian officials said Zakka's release was partly due to the country's close relations with Lebanon's Hezbollah group.

Zakka was one of several prisoners with ties to the West who have been detained in Iran. Iranian appeals courts upheld his sentence in 2017, as well as those of an American and two Iranian-Americans accused of "collaboration" with the U.S.

His release came amid strained relations between Iran and the U.S. Ties between the two countries began to deteriorate after U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from Iran's nuclear agreement with global powers.

Zakka, who lives in Washington, heads the Arab ICT Organization (IJMA3), which says it "fosters international cooperation and solidarity in the delivery of technical assistance ... in developing countries."

Since 2009, IJMA3 has received at least $730,000 in contracts and grants from the U.S. State Department and USAID, the lead U.S. government agency that fights poverty and promotes democracy around the world. The State Department has not responded to a years-old Associated Press request for information about the grants.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said the White House is "thankful" for Zakka's release, but also wants other Americans detained in Iran to be freed.

Sanders declined to say whether the U.S. government played a role in Zakka's release.