US State Department insists no ‘back-room deal’ behind release of Hezbollah financier

Kassim Tajideen was designated a 'global terrorist' by the US Treasury Department for supporting Hezbollah

Hezbollah flags flutter along an empty street, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, at the entrance of Mays Al-Jabal village, Lebanon March 26, 2020. REUTERS/Aziz Taher

The US State Department is denying any deal-making or “good-will diplomacy” was behind the impending release of Kassim Tajideen, a Lebanese-Belgian businessman and convicted financier of the militant organisation Hezbollah.

Tajideen, 64, was designated a “global terrorist” by the US Treasury Department in 2009 for supporting Hezbollah, which is designated a terrorist group by the US.

He was arrested in Morocco in 2017, extradited to the US and sentenced to five years in prison in August 2019.

But after a judge's order on May 28, Tajideen was granted “compassionate release” because of "serious health conditions" and coronavirus.

He is in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and is expected to be deported to Lebanon in the next two weeks.

With no evidence that Tajideen’s health is suffering, or that there is coronavirus in his prison, his release is fuelling talk of a prisoner swap between Washington and Beirut, or with Hezbollah’s main backer, Iran.

But on Monday, a US official told The National  that there was no such deal and Tajideen's release was a matter of judicial process.

“The US government opposed Tajideen's motion for compassionate release but in the end the court ruled in his favour,” the US State Department spokesperson said.

Asked why no appeal notice by federal prosecutors was filed, the State Department referred the query to the Justice Department, which was not available for comment.

Legally, a notice of appeal must be filed within 30 days after entry of the judgment. In Tajideen’s case, the deadline is May 28.

He was transferred from prison to a detention centre on June 11.

Lebanese reports said it was a “good-will gesture” from the US, and part of a possible swap after the release of Lebanese-American dual citizen Amer Fakhoury in March.

But the US State Department official denies that explanation.

FILE PHOTO: Supporters of Lebanon's Hezbollah leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, ride in a vehicle decorated with Hezbollah and Lebanese flags and a picture of him, as part of a convoy in the southern village of Kfar Kila, Lebanon October 25, 2019. REUTERS/Aziz Taher/File Photo

“We have seen some inaccurate reports characterising this judicial action as good-will diplomacy or part of a back-room deal. Those reports are false,” he said.

The early release “due to health concerns and removed from the United States does not diminish the severity of his crime".

“Iranian-backed Hezbollah is a terrorist organisation that continues to pose a significant threat to the United States and its international partners,” the official said.

Tajideen’s return has been a major request by the Lebanese General Security Directorate and for Hezbollah.

“The case of Lebanese businessman arrested in the US, Kassim Tajideen, is on mind, is not ignored, and I met him in his jail in the US,” Abbas Ibrahim, the top Lebanese security official, said last summer.

Mr Ibrahim has negotiated hostages release from Syria and Iran over the past four years.

“I’m concerned about the precedent that it sets, especially if it’s linked to the broader Iran hostage swaps,” said Jason Brodsky, a policy director at United Against Nuclear Iran.

“Previous prisoner exchanges involved sanctions evaders but Mr Tajideen is a specially designated global terrorist.”

Mr Brodsky said Tajideen’s work and experience in African countries was further evidence of the importance Iran and Hezbollah placed on the continent.

The commander of Iran's Islamic Republican Guard Corps' Quds Force, Esmail Ghaani, dealt directly with Tehran’s influence in West Africa, the US Treasury Department says.

Tajideen pleaded guilty in December 2018 for making nearly $1 billion (Dh3.67bn) in illegal transactions and evading US sanctions.

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