US set to release convicted Hezbollah financier

Kassim Tajideen was part way through a five-year prison term due to expire in 2022

A supporter of Lebanon's Hezbollah gestures as he holds a Hezbollah flag in Marjayoun, Lebanon May 7, 2018. REUTERS/Aziz Taher

A Hezbollah financier who was convicted in a US court and designated a “global terrorist” by the Treasury Department is due to be released nearly two years before the end of his sentence due to his poor health and risks of Covid-19 infection from prison, according to court documents.

Kassim Tajideen is a Lebanese-Belgian citizen and a multi-millionaire who was designated in 2009 for supporting Hezbollah, a Lebanese militant organisation labelled as a terrorist group by the US. He was sentenced to five years in prison in 2019 but is now expected to be released by the US government on grounds of “good will”.

On May 28 Washington Federal District Court Judge Reggie Walton granted Mr Tajideen's emergency request for compassionate release, which said his age and "serious health conditions" leave him particularly vulnerable as the coronavirus spread through the US prison system.

Mr Walton rejected Justice Department arguments that Tajideen was reasonably healthy for his age, 64, and that the prison he was in had no coronavirus cases.

Mr Tajideen, 64, was arrested in Morocco in 2017 and pleaded guilty in December 2018 for making nearly $1 billion (Dh3.7 billion) in illegal transactions and evading US sanctions.

In August of 2019, following his extradition, he was ordered to pay $50 million alongside his prison sentence.

Mr Tajideen could be back in Lebanon within weeks.

The adviser for hostage affairs at the Syrian emergency taskforce, Nizar Zakka, welcomed the news of his impending release.

Mr Zakka, who was held hostage in Iran for four years, told The National the release is "gesture of good will" from the US.

A US official at the Federal Bureau of Prisons confirmed that Mr Tajideen had left the federal prison where he had been held since August 2019.

He hoped that the release would lead to de-escalation in Lebanon, and progress in secret negotiation between the US and Iran on the issue of hostages.

In 2009, the Treasury Department designated Mr Tajideen as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist based on his tens of millions of dollars of financial support of Hezbollah”.

His arrest and sentencing was seen as a major move to counter Hezbollah by the US court. “His sentencing and the $50 million forfeiture in this case are just the latest public examples of the Department of Justice’s ongoing efforts to disrupt and dismantle Hezbollah and its support networks,” Assistant Attorney General Brian Benczkowski of the Criminal Division said in 2019.

In a statement, his family welcomed the news of his release. “We look forward to his return to Lebanon in the near future on June 27,” the family said. It added that the judge approved his release due to Covid-19 concerns and that the family is grateful for Lebanese and US authorities for this outcome.

Last March, Lebanese-American Amer Fakhoury was released by Lebanese authorities and returned to the US, increasing speculation that Mr Tajideen’s upcoming deportation is part of a prisoner-swap between Washington and Beirut.

The State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Justice Department were not immediately available for comment.

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