A Lebanese man convicted of financing Hezbollah was freed from jail in the US last month as a result of indirect contacts between Tehran and Washington that are expected to yield more releases, three senior Middle East officials told Reuters news agency.
Kassim Tajideen was released on June 11 and arrived in Lebanon last week. Two of the sources told said his release was part of the same track of talks that last year yielded the release by Iran of Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese businessman with US permanent residency, and Syria’s release of Sam Goodwin, a US citizen.
A State Department representative dismissed the claim and insisted Tajideen was released because of health concerns.
Tajideen’s lawyer, Chibli Mallat, also denied that the release had anything to do with the release of other prisoners. “It was a purely judicial operation”, he said.
Tajideen, 65, pleaded guilty in 2018 to charges linked to breaching US sanctions imposed on him. He was sentenced to five years in prison and fined $50 million (Dh183.6m).
In 2009, the US designated Tajideen an important financial supporter of Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Lebanese Shiite group that is classified as a terrorist group by Washington. He was extradited to the US after being arrested as he entered Morocco in 2017.
Tajideen has denied supporting Hezbollah and disputed his designation as a terrorist financier, said Mr Mallat.
A judge ordered Tajideen’s release on May 27 pending a 14-day quarantine on the basis of a petition that sought his release because of the risks of Covid-19 in jail, Mr Mallat said. He was being held in Maryland.
The reasons for his release are under seal in the US and therefore confidential.
The US government had opposed the release but would abide by the court’s decision, said the State Department representative.
“The fact that he was released early due to health concerns and removed from the United States does not diminish the severity of his crime,” the representative told Reuters.
But the sources – a senior official in the Middle East, a senior Lebanese official and a regional diplomat – said the release was the result of “indirect understandings” between Tehran and Washington.
“The release of Tajideen comes within a long path of exchange operations that will happen later on a wide level. There are still those who will be released by the two sides. This operation will continue,” the Middle Eastern official said.
The regional diplomat also described Tajideen’s release as a prelude to further possible deals involving about 20 people. “All parties involved are testing each other as there is zero trust,” he said.
Maj Gen Abbas Ibrahim, the head of Lebanon’s General Security agency, is acting as the main mediator in the process, two of the sources said. General Security declined to comment.
Maj Gen Ibrahim is a well-known negotiator having been involved in talks with ISIS fighters on the Syrian border for the recovery of remains of Lebanese soldiers in 2017 as well as several deals with Palestinian factions in the restive Ain El Hilweh refugee camp in south Lebanon.
The senior Lebanese official said the process had been going on in complete secrecy and had started with the handing over of Mr Goodwin and other foreigners held by Syria, whose government is allied to Iran and Hezbollah.