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Iran judiciary says to hand over detained Lebanese businessman to Lebanon

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DUBAI (Reuters) – Lebanon’s security chief is due to escort a detained Lebanese man home from Iran on Tuesday after Beirut secured his release from an Iranian prison, with Iranian officials saying it was due partly to their close ties with Lebanon’s Hezbollah group.

Lebanon’s president and foreign minister had urged Tehran to grant an amnesty to Nizar Zakka, who also holds U.S. residency and was sentenced in 2016 to 10 years in prison and a $4.2 million fine for “collaborating against the state”.

Iran’s judiciary spokesman said Lebanese President Michel Aoun had requested help with Zakka’s release and that Hezbollah had said it would be “beneficial”, the judiciary’s own news service reported.

Lebanese security chief Abbas Ibrahim said earlier he would return with Zakka on Tuesday.

The Shi’ite Hezbollah group was set up by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps in the early 1980s to combat Israel’s occupation of south Lebanon. It is now the most powerful group in Lebanon and is part of the governing coalition in Beirut, which also includes parties critical of Iran’s regional role.

Zakka was detained in 2015 after being invited to Iran to take part in a conference. Iranian media has described him as a U.S. spy.

Last year, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said he was proposing a “serious dialogue” with the United States on a possible prisoner swap, though he did not say whether Zakka would be included.

Some local media has speculated that Zakka’s release would also involve the freeing of another Lebanese citizen in the United States. However, Ibrahim said Iran’s freeing of Zakka was not part of any wider deal.

The U.S. State Department on Monday said it hoped the reports of Zakka’s release were accurate. Several U.S.-Iranian dual nationals are detained in Iran.

(Reporting by Dubai newsroom, writing by Angus McDowall in Beirut; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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