An American hostage held by Iran for 1,197 days lost contact with his family nearly two weeks ago, raising fears that Nizar Zakka — already in frail health — may have been removed from his cell to be subjected to torture.
Zakka was heard from again briefly today, according to his attorney, confirming days of punishment at the hands of the Iranians for refusing to relent to their demands.
Zakka visited Tehran in September 2015 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 to Washington. 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 his family warned months ago that Zakka is in “very bad health.”
Zakka, a Lebanese-American and permanent U.S. resident, is secretary-general of the D.C.-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.
Since being invited and kidnapped, Zakka has weathered six protest hunger strikes — all while lobbying on behalf of fellow inmates to improve their conditions and refusing to film any propaganda “confession” video for the Iranians.
Early this year, an Iranian doctor hired by Zakka’s family said the hostage may have cancer, but Iranian authorities were not allowing necessary diagnostics.
“Nizar was removed from his cell about two weeks ago; we are very concerned for his safety and well being,” attorney Jason Poblete told PJM early today. “Responsible stakeholders need to do more to help secure his release.”
Despite the loss of contact, Zakka is still believed to be held at Tehran’s notorious Evin prison. “He was taken away about 10 or so days ago and, based on my sources, tortured,” Poblete said.
“When I last spoke with him, before they took him away, he stressed that he maintains his innocence and pleaded that those in a position to help do so,” he added.
Later in the day, Poblete confirmed that Zakka was heard from again.
“I can confirm that Nizar will not capitulate to pressure from his Iranian captors. He was punished for over 10 days for it,” Poblete said. “Nizar is a prisoner of conscience and the family requests that responsible stakeholders in a position to help please bring Nizar home.”
A current frustration of international legal teams trying to secure the release of Iran hostages — including Americans Bob Levinson, Xiyue Wang, Siamak and Baquer Namazi, Karan Vafadari, Morad Tahbaz, and Robin Shahini — is getting the attention of the White House and other governments with so many competing foreign policy interests. Advocates for the hostages are doing their best to push the fight for their freedom to the top of the list, convinced that this strong political will is the only way these victims will be released.
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 — pleaded with then-Secretary of State John Kerry in an April 2016 letter to “mount a humanitarian effort” to free the IT expert.
This story was updated at 5:30 p.m. EST