WASHINGTON — Families of some of the Americans unlawfully detained by Iran’s regime pleaded with Congress and the administration today to bring their loved ones home, with witnesses including a 19-year-old who reported that his imprisoned father is on the 30th day of his latest protest hunger strike.
“All of this pain and suffering has led my dad to this ongoing hunger strike; he told me the other day that we do not put our heads down for anyone,” Omar Zakka told the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa. “My dad said that he would rather die for his cause than live with injustice and what they are doing to him.”
Omar is one of the three sons of Nizar Zakka, a D.C. information technology and economic development expert who visited Tehran at the invitation of the Iranian government to speak at a conference on women’s entrepreneurship and employment, was seized as he tried to catch a return flight in September 2015. The State Department even helped fund his trip, according to his colleagues.
The Lebanese-American and permanent U.S. resident is secretary-general of the Dupont Circle-based IJMA3 group, which lobbies for the information and communications technology industry in the Middle East. Zakka earned degrees from the University of Texas after graduating from the Riverside Military Academy in Gainesville, Ga., in 1985. He used to work as a software engineer at contractor Kellogg, Brown & Root in the early ’90s.
He was sentenced to 10 years on espionage charges a year after his arrest. Friends of Zakka — including former Riverside Military Academy president Col. James Benson (USMC ret.), Army Major Gen. John Peabody (ret.), and former Assistant Secretary of the Army Paul Woodley — have lobbied the State Department to “mount a humanitarian effort” to free the IT expert, arguing he is “a man without country when it comes to consular assistance” as the Lebanese government wouldn’t take up the U.S. resident’s case.
Omar was a cadet second lieutenant at Riverside, his father’s alma mater, when Nizar Zakka was seized.
“While my dad is of a strong and sound mind, he is fighting for his liberty, indeed, his life. This week marks five weeks of hunger strike. His body may be weak, but his will, as I said, as strong as ever. My dad is innocent and, as he says, will not be forced to do things against his will, including signing forced confessions,” Omar Zakka told lawmakers.
“All of my brothers are very proud of him. Our dad is truly a great man, maybe a better man than I’ll ever be. My dad has devoted his life for humanitarian and development work. In other words, helping others.”
Doug Levinson, son of America’s longest-held hostage, declared that “Bob Levinson has been left behind by the U.S. government time and time and time again.”
A former FBI agent and 69-year-old father of seven, Levinson was working as a private detective on a cigarette smuggling case on Kish Island, an Iranian resort port in the Persian Gulf with looser entrance requirements. He disappeared in March 2007, and his wife made subsequent trips to Iran to try to find out any information. A hostage video of Levinson was sent to the family in late 2010, and in April 2011 they received photos of him. They released the photos in January 2013 out of frustration that not enough was being done by the government.
When five U.S. hostages were returned from Iran at the time of the implementation of the nuclear deal in January 2016, Bob Levinson was not among them. His frustrated family started the hashtag #WhatAboutBob as the other captive Americans returned home. Levinson is the longest-held hostage in U.S. history and has five grandchildren he’s never met, including a 3-year-old named Bobby in remission from stage 2 lymphoma.
The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found that it’s “an established fact that Mr. Levinson was arrested without any legal ground, in violation of his rights as established in article 9 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and article 9 of the Covenant, and has been detained since then.”
“The UN has been more forceful on securing his return than his own government that sent him there,” Doug Levinson told the committee, noting that “we are hopeful with this new administration, but we’ve heard these promises before — we need action.”
Levinson stressed that it’s essential to “not let Iran off the hook” on returning his father as “they know exactly where he is.”
“It’s absolutely devastating to my family that it’s been 10 years,” yet many Americans don’t even know about the longest-held hostage in U.S. history, he added.
In a direct message to his father: “We miss you, we love you. Please stay strong. We’re going to get your home.”
Babak Namazi, pleading for his father and brother, emphasized that the U.S. must “get my family out before it’s too late.”
“I fear that at any moment my father may die,” he said.
Siamak Namazi, a businessman who was raised in the United States and had been working out of Dubai, was arrested in October 2015 while visiting a friend in Tehran. Namazi hails from a prominent Iranian family; his father used to be governor in Khuzestan province and a UNICEF official, and the family immigrated to the U.S. in 1983. His father, Baquer Namazi, 81, was arrested in Tehran in February and also taken to the city’s notoriously brutal Evin prison.
In October, the Namazis were sentenced to 10 years in prison “for spying and cooperating with the U.S. government against Iran.” Iran said the Namazis weren’t included in the January hostage swap with the Obama administration because their seizure was “not political.”
Babak Namazi said it was torturous first hearing on TV that Siamak had been released, then finding out otherwise. “I can’t describe the feeling of joy and feeling of happiness… that feeling was crushed within an hour that, in fact, Siamak was not part of the swap.”
Similarly, the Levinson family found out not from the U.S. government but from TV that Bob Levinson was not part of the hostage swap.
Namazi said that not only is his elderly father’s health failing in an Iranian prison, but his brother “has been pushed over the edge under relentless pressure and interrogation” that has “succeeded in taking away his will.”
“The days, the weeks, the months, they’re going by and the situation continues to deteriorate really rapidly,” Babak Namazi warned, noting that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps “has ripped my family in half.”
Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) emphasized the importance of keeping the hostages at the forefront of policy and public consciousness. “We continue to see too many Americans held for too long,” she said.
There are currently seven Americans known to be held in Iran: Levinson, the Namazis, Zakka, Princeton student Xiyue Wang, San Diego resident Robin Shahini, and art dealer Karan Vafadari.