One of the American hostages being held by the regime in Tehran reportedly may be suffering from cancer yet is being denied the healthcare he needs.
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 has undertaken lengthy hunger strikes in protest of his detention. In August, Zakka was notified that his appeal was denied.
Last July, Zakka’s 19-year-old son Omar told the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa that his dad was on the 30th day of his latest protest hunger strike.
“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.
Nizar Zakka, said his son, “would rather die for his cause than live with injustice and what they are doing to him.”
Zakka’s U.S.-based attorney, Jason Poblete, told the Center for Human Rights in Iran this week that “a few weeks ago, Nizar was diagnosed by an Iranian doctor hired by the family with colon cancer.”
“He needs a colonoscopy to confirm the diagnosis, but the Iranian government will not allow it,” Poblete added.
It is also believed that officials at Tehran’s notorious Evin prison may be drugging the food of U.S. hostages to make them sleep for days on end. Zakka is sharing a cell with U.S. citizen and Princeton University student Xiyue Wang, a fourth-year doctoral candidate in late 19th and early 20th century Eurasian history, who was arrested in August 2016 and later sentenced to 10 years in prison after Iran said he was scanning large quantities of documents and sending digital scans to the State Department, Princeton and Harvard. Wang got his bachelor’s degree at the University of Washington and studied at Harvard before Princeton. He and his wife, Qu Hua, have a young son.
Poblete said Monday that Zakka had just been “taken to the Evin clinic for oxygen because he may have bronchitis or some other ailment that is impeding his ability to breath easily.”
“However, no doctors or dentists. He was also coughing up blood,” the attorney noted.
Poblete added that the Iranians “have refused deliveries of gloves, hats, or other warm clothing that the family wants to deliver to him,” and “Nizar has not seen the sun for months.”
“In addition to robbing him of his liberty, they are slowly destroying his health,” said Poblete. “Nizar is extremely ill and requires advanced medical care outside of Iran; he should be released immediately. Evin Prison officials are using medicine as a weapon; their cruelty knows no bounds.”
Iran also returned to Evin prison 81-year-old U.S. hostage Baquer Namazi, 81, who was arrested in Tehran in February 2016 after trying to secure the release of his son, Siamak Namazi, a U.S. citizen and businessman who was arrested in October 2015 while visiting a friend in Tehran.
In October 2016, 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 2016 hostage swap with the Obama administration because their seizure was “not political.”
Baquer Namazi has been hospitalized four times in the past year, and Iranian officials briefly released him from prison so he could get treatment for life-threatening heart problems. “He remains in urgent need of sustained medical care, and the United States Government holds Iran fully accountable for his well-being,” the White House said in a statement Wednesday.
American hostage Karan Vafadari, 56, predicted in a letter this week, “I probably won’t get out of Evin Prison before I’m 70.” The reasons for his arrest became more clear, as well, as his sister Kateh Vafadari told the Center for Human Rights in Iran that he was arrested “a few days after he got a court order to force the [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] to vacate one of our ancestral buildings.”
A dual national who was born in Tehran and graduated from New York University before receiving his MBA at UCLA, Karan Vafadari owns an art gallery in Tehran along with his Iranian wife, Afarin Niasari. When Niasari was attempting to fly to Italy for an art project in July 2016, she was detained by IRGC agents who told her to call her husband, then detained Vafadari as well when he came to the airport as asked. They were sent to Evin prison.
Last August, prosecutors accused the couple of serving alcohol in their home and throwing mixed-gender parties for foreign dignitaries; as a Zoroastrian, Vafadari technically should not be subject to those Islamic rules under Iranian law. In March, they were also charged with running a house of vice and espionage along with “attempting to overthrow the Islamic Republic of Iran.” Iranian officials have also declared the couple’s civil marriage invalid, as they married in Nevada in 2002 and Niasari was born into a Muslim family. Vafadari’s sons and a daughter live in the United States.
In a letter this month, Vafadari said his 27-year sentence — which includes 124 lashes — was handed down for “collusion in plots against national security,” “storing smuggled foreign alcohol,” “possessing my father’s opium pipe,” and having 124 “inappropriate” CDs, six packs of playing cards and marijuana.
Niasari was sentenced to 16 years in prison and 74 lashes. Among her charges was “presenting and selling works of art against Islamic values.”
Vafadari said the IRGC had “tried to convince Afarin to give false statements against me, to say I was a member of the Mossad and the CIA… so they could hang me.”
“To show how ridiculous and biased these convictions are and how they are intended to bring the highest prison sentences, it is enough for me to point out that a few months ago some of our broken handicraft pieces were studied by antique experts and if they had truly been antiques, the authorities would have sentenced us to death. That was their intention from the very beginning,” he wrote. “I am sure this is the truth. They were looking for money transfer documents that could have been considered money laundering and interference in the country’s financial system.”
Vafadari warned: “It’s now clear that without an active intervention, there’s no chance I will be freed in the near future or perhaps ever.”