Yellow Ribbon Project

U.S Hostage in Iran Warns Business Travelers: 'If You Value Your Freedom... Don't Come Here'

As relaxed sanctions in the wake of the P5+1 nuclear deal have stoked more business relationships with Iran, a U.S. resident unjustly held by the regime is warning both personal and business travelers against stepping foot in the Islamic Republic.

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, and launched a lengthy hunger strike this summer in protest of his detention. This week, Zakka was notified that his appeal was denied.

“If you’re traveling to Iran on business or pleasure, let my case be a lesson and a warning to others considering visits to Iran,” Zakka said this week in a statement issued through his U.S. attorney, Jason Poblete. “I’m not the only one. If you value your freedom and are a foreigner, Iran is not safe for you. Don’t come here.”

“I was invited to speak at an Internet ICT conference by Vice President Shahindokht Molaverdi,” Zakka added. “On my way to the airport I was kidnapped, locked up in Evin Prison, and was falsely charged with espionage. I am innocent and the Iranians know it.”

“There is no rule of law in Iran, and I am a victim of this, especially if you’re a foreigner. I will continue to speak out for freedom and justice.”

Six more Americans in addition to Zakka are being held by Iran: Xiyue Wang, Robert Levinson, Siamak Namazi, Baquer Namazi, Robin Shahini, and Karan Vafadari.

Poblete noted that in 1979 Iran “held Americans hostages to exact political concessions from the United States,” and “the Iranians are doing it again, but this time Iran is using a different twisted method for what amounts to hostage-taking so that Iran can, among other things, circumvent U.S. and E.U. sanctions or use innocent civilians, such as Nizar, as leverage to negotiate flawed agreements such as the JCPOA.”

“In summary, Nizar was invited and given a visa, Nizar was kidnapped, and then Nizar was falsely accused of espionage,” the attorney added. “It appears that he was targeted for capture so that it coincided during a critical time of the JCPOA negotiations. For these and other reasons, Iran remains a state sponsor of terrorism under U.S. law. We shall continue to press all governments that can and should help to demand that Iran unconditionally release of Mr. Zakka.”

19-year-old Omar Zakka, one of Nizar’s three sons, told the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa last month 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.”

Follow the campaign to free Nizar Zakka at @FreeNizarZakka