A Lebanese information technology expert who was detained in Iran for four years on spurious charges says Iranian authorities offered him a $10,000 Persian rug as compensation for his wrongful imprisonment when he was released this week.
Recently freed Lebanese detainee Nizar Zakka told The National that Iran officially accused him of organising the Ukrainian revolution during a five-minute trial that took place a year after members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard detained him in September 2015. "They said I organised the Ukrainian revolution and they were laughing," said the 53-year old, referring to the 2014 violent protests that led to the overthrow of the Ukrainian government.
“All the revolutions in the world, [the judge] said I was in charge of them. I told him that maybe he was looking at a different file. I am Nizar Zakka. I don’t know what I have to do with the Ukrainian revolution”.
He was sentenced to 10 years in prison and a $4.2 million (Dh15.4m) fine.
Though the Iranian media went on to describe him as a US spy, Mr Zakka, an internet freedom advocate, was not informed of this accusation at the time, he says.
Mr Zakka denies the charges, saying that he was used as a pawn in a power struggle between the IRGC, that did not want Iran to open up to the West, and the government, which hoped to attract international companies after signing a nuclear deal earlier in 2015.
“I represented technology, social media, and internet freedom,” said Mr Zakka, who moved to the US as a teenager and acquired permanent residency in 2013.
He was released Tuesday morning and flew straight to Beirut.
The Lebanese authorities, including president Michel Aoun, had asked Iran to free Mr Zakka as a gesture of good will.
“It was easy for Iran to do a favour for Lebanon. It doesn’t look weak,” said Mr Zakka, adding that “Iran needs to de-escalate” tensions with Saudi Arabia and the US in the region.
In September 2015, Mr Zakka was invited to give a talk at a conference in Tehran on women in sustainable development by Shahindokht Molaverdi, who then served as vice-president for women and family affairs.
Nearly a decade earlier, he had founded IJMA3, a Beirut-based information and communication technology organisation that aims to bridge the digital divide in the Arab world. “I used to work with international NGOs that got contracts with USAID and the State Department, but also with the World Bank and the European Union,” he said.
He would divide his time equally between travelling, Washington DC, and his home in Beirut, where he was born.
Mr Zakka had visited Tehran several times before on official visits, invited by state bodies such as the Iranian cyberspace council and the Telecom Ministry.
But this time, men in civilian clothes stopped his taxi as he was returning to the airport, forced him out of the car and brought to Evin prison.
“They blindfolded me. For over a month, I didn’t know where I was,” he recalled, sitting in a hotel room in Lebanon, surrounded by family and friends.
"First, they said they wanted to kill me because of Mina stampede," he said, in reference to the thousands of pilgrims crushed to death in Mecca during the same month as his arrest. Many of them were Iranian. "They gave me papers to write my will. They play with your mind."
Mr Zakka says that he was forced to sit in stress positions for hours.
“I couldn’t believe what was happening to me. I thought I was in a coma and that I would wake up soon,” he recalls.
Mr Zakka was held in solitary confinement for a year-and-a-half in the IRGC wing of Evin before being moved to an overcrowded cell shared with 50 other people, including several dual nationals and one other foreigner, US citizen Xiyue Wang.
Visibly tired and ill, Mr Zakka said that he felt driven by the promise he made his co-detainees to campaign for their release.
“They were very difficult times. You hope to die. You hope that the next morning you will not wake up.”
Mr Zakka suffers from health problems partly due to six hunger strikes he undertook while in detention, the longest of which lasted 33 days.
“I felt abandoned by everyone,” he said, his voice breaking. “It’s only when the US congress started passing resolutions and bills that included my name [in 2017] that I felt the world had not completely forgotten about me.”
In September last year, Mrs Molaverdi, now a presidential advisor, acknowledged that the Iranian government had “failed” Mr Zakka and that his arrest harmed the image of her country.
Mr Zakka said Iranian authorities lavished gifts on him in an effort to apologise.
“They brought me to a carpet shop and told me to choose. They kept asking, please pick the best one, we want to show our apology,” he said. The one he chose was worth $10 000, he was told.
The framed carpet, as well as a delicate porcelain teacup and a painting of a traditional Middle East street scene all made it to Mr Zakka’s hotel room in Lebanon. He says he will keep them.
“They took me to the presidential pavilion at the airport when they said good-bye,” he said. “It was just to look good for the media.”
Asked what his plans were now that he was free, Mr Zakka shrugged. “It’s too early for that. When I wake up at night, I still can’t believe I’m not in Evin.”