On a hunger strike more than a month long, a D.C. technology expert detained after being invited by the government of Iran to speak at a conference sent a message through his attorney thanking Congress for standing up for U.S. hostages.
Nizar Zakka, a 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.
Zakka visited Tehran at the invitation of the Iranian government to speak at a conference on women’s entrepreneurship and employment, and 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.
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.
On Wednesday, the House approved by voice vote a resolution sponsored by Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), Ted Poe (R-Texas) and Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) demanding Iran release American prisoners. Ros-Lehtinen said on the House floor that it was the responsibility of lawmakers to “demand that Iran be held accountable for its tactic of taking our people hostage in order to exact financial or political concessions.”
Antoine Abu Dib, a Beirut lawyer representing Zakka, released a statement today saying Nizar “would like to thank the U.S. Congress members, and through them the U.S. people for standing next to him and supporting his case.”
The lawyer called it unprecedented in modern history “in which a government invites someone, issues him a visa, and then arrests him.”
He thanked the Iranian people “who are working on a campaign this Friday, to protest in the occasion of the 33rd day of Nizar’s latest hunger strike” and supporters around the globe “who did a symbolic hunger strike through Twitter, with the hashtag #FreeNizarZakka.”
“Finally, Nizar Zakka would like to take this opportunity to thank the Lebanese people, the friends and the family who are tirelessly continuing to help and support him during these difficult days of his ordeal.”
19-year-old Omar Zakka, one of Nizar’s three sons, told the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa on Tuesday that his father “said that he would rather die for his cause than live with injustice and what they are doing to him.”
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.”
In the House chamber Wednesday, Ros-Lehtinen recounted hearing Omar “plead for his father’s life, as Nizar is now one month into his 5th hunger strike – only this time, Nizar has vowed that there is no turning back.”
“Nizar said he will continue with his hunger strike for himself and the others unjustly held by Iran, stating ‘it is liberty or death…there is no turning back,'” she said. “Can you imagine, Mr. Speaker, being 19 years old and hearing your father say he is willing to die in Iran in the pursuit of truth and justice?”
Follow the campaign to free Nizar Zakka at @FreeNizarZakka