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Released Lebanese businessman Zakka: ‘I was virtually sentenced by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard’

Released Lebanese businessman Zakka: ‘I was virtually sentenced by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard’ BEIRUT: Nizar Zakka, who has barely been out of Tehran’s Evin Prison 24 hours after spending nearly four years in it, still feels the impact of what happened to him. After his release, Zakka summarized what happened to him — his tears streamed down…

Released Lebanese businessman Zakka: ‘I was virtually sentenced by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard’

Released Lebanese businessman Zakka: ‘I was virtually sentenced by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard’

BEIRUT: Nizar Zakka, who has barely been out of Tehran’s Evin Prison 24 hours after spending nearly four years in it, still feels the impact of what happened to him.

After his release, Zakka summarized what happened to him — his tears streamed down his face more than once during the interview.

Zakka said he visited Iran only four times previously on official invitations, and on a fifth after an invitation from the country’s vice president to participate in a conference on informatics. 

“Three days after my participation in the conference, I did not feel that I was an unwanted guest and had not received any remarks. On my way back to the airport, a car with people in civilian clothes intercepted us. They took me out of the car and spoke to me in English saying that no one would see me anymore,” he told Arab News.

“They arrested me, and said that they would kill me. There was no explanation for what happened, and I was tortured. They asked me to say on camera that I was working with the Americans and I planned on overthrowing the regime in Iran. I was there because of an official invitation. So, I refused their request. I felt that if it was going to end in death, why not resist what was happening to me unjustly?

“They knew that I was innocent, but it seems that they wanted to send a message. The kidnappers were members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and they wanted to show that they could do what they wanted. I was an activist in the field of human rights and had free access to the internet, and expressed my opinion at a conference in Tehran. They exploited this as a weak link for international companies, to send them a message that they are forbidden to enter Iran. They succeeded, they stopped coming to Iran — they feared their safety.”

Sham trial

Regarding the trial he was subjected to, he smiled. “It was only for show. I stood in front of the judge and they began to mock me. One of them said that I was detained for inciting the revolution in Ukraine. I laughed and told the judge they had the wrong file. The representative of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps read out the accusations, without asking me a single question, and that’s how I was sentenced. The cell I stayed in had 50 detainees living in the worst conditions.”

He said that in the cell, he knew Americans Ziyu Wang and Karen Godafari, former Iranian Vice President Hamid Mashaki, and Mahdi Rafsanjani, the son of former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani. He said that he also met “an Iraqi detainee and many Iranians, Kurds and Arabs. There were many Iranian diplomats, all accused of treachery because it is the easiest charge.

“Every person who was arrested was subjected to physical torture of all kinds, which later turned into a psychological torture. I slept every night hoping not to wake up the next day.”

As for his contact with the outside world, Zakka said: “At first they allowed us to call family members, but only for 4 minutes that would go by without speaking, and later, when they transferred me to the public prison, those who ran it allowed us a 15-minute phone call. They dealt with us more compassionately than the Revolutionary Guard did.

I was physically and mentally tortured to a point where I wished for death.

Nizar Zakka, Lebanese businessman

“A year ago, I met with the director general of the Lebanese Directorate of General Security, but nothing happened. I lost hope. I was informed that Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil spoke about my release date during Ramadan. The month went by, then Eid came, and nothing happened. Two days ago, those who imprisoned me came to tell me that I would be released.”

Zakka believes that the reason for his change of fortunes was the internal discussions in the Iranian regime over how to proceed with new Lebanese President Michel Aoun. “The Iranians wanted to present a gift to Aoun. It (his release) may have been a message to Lebanon, but perhaps there is something else. The Japanese prime minister (Shinzo Abe), who comes to Tehran, is the son of a foreign minister (Shintaro Abe) who played the biggest role in ending the war between Iran and Iraq.”

Aoun has so far avoided visiting Iran, despite several calls for him to do so. Political sources in Beirut believe that Aoun “takes into account the international community opposing Iran, and the internal Lebanese position critical of its interference in Arab countries.”

Celebrations

Zakka said that after announcing his release, he was accompanied by several Iranian civilians to the market and bought a cake to celebrate. 

They also took him to the carpet market and asked him to choose the most expensive one. They chose one for $10,000 as a gift, and officers from the Revolutionary Guard Corps and the prosecutor’s office were asked to apologize to Zakka. A red carpet was also laid out at a private airport in Tehran as Zakka left Iran.

When asked if he had received calls from the US Embassy in Beirut after his release, Zakka said: “There are friends at the embassy who are calling to check.”

When he was arrested, he was 48 years old. Today he is 52. “Four years of my life were lost,” he lamented. “I watched my children grow up. I want to go to the US to see them. I miss them so much.”

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Syria flare-up kills 35 fighters, including 26 pro-regime forces

  BEIRUT: At least 10 civilians and 35 combatants, mostly pro-regime forces, were killed on Saturday in clashes and airstrikes that erupted at dawn in northwestern Syria, a war monitor said. The flare-up came as Russian-backed regime forces tried to retake two villages seized by opposition forces and allied fighters earlier this month, the Britain-based…

Syria flare-up kills 35 fighters, including 26 pro-regime forces

 

BEIRUT: At least 10 civilians and 35 combatants, mostly pro-regime forces, were killed on Saturday in clashes and airstrikes that erupted at dawn in northwestern Syria, a war monitor said.

The flare-up came as Russian-backed regime forces tried to retake two villages seized by opposition forces and allied fighters earlier this month, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

“Since this morning, the Syrian regime and allied fighters have launched five failed attempts to regain control of Jibine and Tal Maleh in northwestern Hama province,” said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman.

Syrian regime airstrikes killed nine opposition fighters, the war monitor said.

Ensuing clashes in the north of Hama province left 26 pro-regime forces dead, including eight who were killed in a mine explosion, the Observatory said.

In neighboring Idlib, regime airstrikes killed 10 civilians, including three children, the Observatory said.

The strikes hit the towns of Maaret Al-Numan and Al-Bara as well as the village of Al-Ftira, according to the war monitor.

The Idlib region of some 3 million people is supposed to be protected from a massive regime offensive by a buffer zone deal that Russia and Turkey signed in September.

But it was never fully implemented, as opposition refused to withdraw from a planned demilitarized zone.

In January, the Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham alliance led by Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate extended its administrative control over the region, which includes most of Idlib province as well as adjacent slivers of Latakia, Hama and Aleppo provinces.

The Syrian regime and Russia have upped their bombardment of the region since late April, killing nearly 400 civilians, according to the Observatory.

Turkey said on Friday that it did not accept Russia’s “excuse” that it had no ability to stop the Syrian regime’s continued bombardments in the last opposition bastion of Idlib.

“In Syria, who are the regime’s guarantors? Russia and Iran,” Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told state news agency Anadolu in a televised interview.

“Thus we do not accept the excuse that ‘We cannot make the regime listen to us’,” he said.

His comments came as Turkey disagreed with Russia earlier this week after Moscow claimed a new cease-fire had been secured in the province following weeks of regime bombardments — a claim that was denied by Ankara.

Syria’s war has killed more than 370,000 people and displaced millions since it started in 2011 with the repression of anti-regime protests.

Russia launched a military intervention in support of the regime in 2015, helping its forces reclaim large parts of the country from opposition fighters and militants.

 

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Middle East News

Iranian opposition groups protest in Brussels

  BEIRUT: At least 10 civilians and 35 combatants, mostly pro-regime forces, were killed on Saturday in clashes and airstrikes that erupted at dawn in northwestern Syria, a war monitor said. The flare-up came as Russian-backed regime forces tried to retake two villages seized by opposition forces and allied fighters earlier this month, the Britain-based…

Iranian opposition groups protest in Brussels

 

BEIRUT: At least 10 civilians and 35 combatants, mostly pro-regime forces, were killed on Saturday in clashes and airstrikes that erupted at dawn in northwestern Syria, a war monitor said.

The flare-up came as Russian-backed regime forces tried to retake two villages seized by opposition forces and allied fighters earlier this month, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

“Since this morning, the Syrian regime and allied fighters have launched five failed attempts to regain control of Jibine and Tal Maleh in northwestern Hama province,” said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman.

Syrian regime airstrikes killed nine opposition fighters, the war monitor said.

Ensuing clashes in the north of Hama province left 26 pro-regime forces dead, including eight who were killed in a mine explosion, the Observatory said.

In neighboring Idlib, regime airstrikes killed 10 civilians, including three children, the Observatory said.

The strikes hit the towns of Maaret Al-Numan and Al-Bara as well as the village of Al-Ftira, according to the war monitor.

The Idlib region of some 3 million people is supposed to be protected from a massive regime offensive by a buffer zone deal that Russia and Turkey signed in September.

But it was never fully implemented, as opposition refused to withdraw from a planned demilitarized zone.

In January, the Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham alliance led by Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate extended its administrative control over the region, which includes most of Idlib province as well as adjacent slivers of Latakia, Hama and Aleppo provinces.

The Syrian regime and Russia have upped their bombardment of the region since late April, killing nearly 400 civilians, according to the Observatory.

Turkey said on Friday that it did not accept Russia’s “excuse” that it had no ability to stop the Syrian regime’s continued bombardments in the last opposition bastion of Idlib.

“In Syria, who are the regime’s guarantors? Russia and Iran,” Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told state news agency Anadolu in a televised interview.

“Thus we do not accept the excuse that ‘We cannot make the regime listen to us’,” he said.

His comments came as Turkey disagreed with Russia earlier this week after Moscow claimed a new cease-fire had been secured in the province following weeks of regime bombardments — a claim that was denied by Ankara.

Syria’s war has killed more than 370,000 people and displaced millions since it started in 2011 with the repression of anti-regime protests.

Russia launched a military intervention in support of the regime in 2015, helping its forces reclaim large parts of the country from opposition fighters and militants.

 

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Sudan says military council suspends decree on UN sites

AMMAN: Jordan’s King Abdullah reacts angrily to any suggestion that he might accept a US deal to end the Arab-Israeli conflict that would make his country a homeland for Palestinians. Speaking to the armed forces in March, he rejected the idea of Jordan as an alternative state for Palestinians, saying: “Don’t we have a voice…

Sudan says military council suspends decree on UN sites

AMMAN: Jordan’s King Abdullah reacts angrily to any suggestion that he might accept a US deal to end the Arab-Israeli conflict that would make his country a homeland for Palestinians.

Speaking to the armed forces in March, he rejected the idea of Jordan as an alternative state for Palestinians, saying: “Don’t we have a voice in the end?”

Already facing economic discontent at home, Abdullah must navigate diplomatic moves by his US allies that are upturning a regional status-quo.

After Israel’s creation in 1948 Jordan absorbed more Palestinians than any other country, with some estimates that they now account for more than half the population.

Any changes to the international consensus on a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine, and Palestinian refugees’ right of return to what is now Israel and the Palestinian territories, long buttressed by US policy, therefore reverberate harder in Jordan than anywhere else.

HIGhLIGHTS

• ‘Deal of the Century’ challenges Jordan’s internal balance.

• Many Jordanians reject leaked details of plan.

• Some Jordanians hope deal could bring prosperity.

US President Donald Trump’s long-promised “Deal of the Century” to resolve the conflict is still secret, though leaked details suggest it dumps the idea of a full Palestinian state in favor of limited self-rule in part of the Occupied Territories, which would undermine Palestinians’ right to return.

It envisages an expansion of Gaza into part of northern Egypt, under Egyptian control, with Palestinians also having a smaller share of the West Bank and some areas on the outskirts of Jerusalem and no control over their borders, the leaks say.

Jordanian fears about what the plan portends for the region, for their Palestinian citizens, and for the politics of their own country, have been aggravated by Trump’s readiness to upturn US policy.

American officials deny contemplating making Jordan a Palestinian homeland, pushing it to take a role in governing parts of the West Bank or challenging the right of King Abdullah’s dynasty to custodianship of Jerusalem’s holy sites.

Disturbing signals

But Trump’s approach to the issue, and recent statements by his ambassador to Israel that it had a right to annex some of the West Bank have done little to assuage Jordanian concerns.

Few subjects in Jordan are more politically charged than the role, presence and future there of Palestinians. The issue is so sensitive that the government publishes no data on how many of its 8 million citizens are also of Palestinian descent, though a recent US congressional report put it at more than half.

Despite the US denials, Jordanians fear that Trump is returning to an old Israeli theme: That Jordan is Palestine and that is where the Palestinians of the West Bank should go.

It could not have come at a worse time for the 57-year-old Abdullah, whose country is facing economic challenges that led to protests and a change of government last year.

While many Palestinians are integrated in Jordan, and many descendants of refugees have never set foot in their original homeland, some native Jordanians have never acknowledged that they will stay permanently.

They fear Trump’s plan could alter the demography and politics of a nation shaped by the presence of Palestinians, who hold full citizenship but are marginalized and seen as a political threat by some people of Jordanian descent.

But Abdullah’s decision that Jordan should attend an economic conference showed that despite mounting alarm at home, Amman cannot ignore pressure from richer, more powerful allies in the West and the Gulf.

Internal worries

Maintaining unity between citizens of Jordanian and Palestinian descent has been critical to the ruling family’s role as a unifying force in a country where tribal and clan loyalties hold sway.

The king is already facing anger from the “Herak” opposition, drawn from Jordanians of native descent, who say Trump’s plans will tear apart a state patronage system that has cemented their own loyalty to the monarchy.

Retired army officers have held small weekly protests in opposition to a deal.

“No to eroding our national identity and dismantling the state,” said Saad Alaween, a prominent Herak dissident, referring to the deal.

Some warn the monarch not to accept a plan that could give their compatriots of Palestinian origin more political rights in an electoral system tilted in favor of native Jordanians.

Rumours that the plan could lead to Jordan taking in Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and Syria, or that it would merge with a rump of Palestinian territory in bits of the West Bank, have also led to alarm.

In a sign of his concerns, the king has even met lawmakers from the once outcast movement in an attempt, say officials, to win the backing of the largest opposition grouping with support in large cities and Palestinian camps.

“Trump wants to buy and sell Jordan and create a new regime. We are behind the king in opposing this,” said Muraed Al-Adaylah, head of the Islamic Action Front, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Abdullah also inspired a shake-up in the intelligence establishment — long seen as a guardian of Jordan’s stability — to solidify the internal front and mitigate any fallout from the deal in the months to come, insiders say.

In the army — whose loyalty to the crown is deeply meshed with Jordanian national identity — there are also signs of concern.

“Jordan is a country that has sovereignty and history, and will say its word at the right moment,” said General Mahmoud Al-Friehat, the army’s chief of staff.

Foreign pressure

Jordan’s long-term strategic and economic policy is based on close relations with the West and the Gulf — an approach that underlay its decision to make peace with Israel in 1994.

Abdullah has made repeated visits to Washington, where officials say he was not told details of the White House plan.

That has only accentuated the sense of alarm among a political establishment that sees a day of reckoning coming with Trump’s deal, two officials and a politician said.

The royal palace has pointed to demonstrations in dozens of rural towns and cities as a message to Washington that it cannot impose a solution that permanently settles Palestinians in Jordan against its will.

Jordan has traditionally turned to monarchies in the Gulf to shore up its economy. However, their focus has shifted to their rivalry with Iran, cutting financial support and leaving Jordan more exposed than ever.

“Our Gulf allies are too beholden to Washington … to extend the level of support that can help us withstand the growing pressures,” said a senior official.

Although Jordan will join the conference to roll out the economic parts of Trump’s plan, it will deliver a message there that no cash offers can replace a political solution to end Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, officials say.

Still, some think economically challenged Jordan could profit from any plan that promises billions in aid and project finance.

Some businessmen have already positioned themselves to benefit and this month a prominent MP, Fawaz Al-Zubi, said Jordanians should be open-minded about anything they could gain from it.

In the camps where 2.2 million of Jordan’s registered refugees live, bitter realism seems to prevail.

Ibrahim Anabtawi, a second-generation refugee with six children, said that like others in the camp he had dug up old United Nations ration cards to prove their rights in case any new deal offered compensation.

“I won’t forget I am a Palestinian or give up the right of return,” said Anabtawi. But he added: “I have been persecuted all this time and no one stood by us. I now want anything that this deal and Trump offers.”

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