US State Department insists no ‘backroom deal’ behind Hezbollah’s Tajideen release

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - The US State Department is pushing back against any talk of deal-making or “goodwill diplomacy” behind the impending release of Kassim Tajideen, a Lebanese-Belgian businessman and convicted financier of the militant organisation Hezbollah

Mr Tajideen, 64, was designated a “global terrorist” by the US Treasury department in 2009 for supporting Hezbollah, labelled as 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 following a judge order on May 28, Mr Tajideen was granted an emergency request for “compassionate release,” citing "serious health conditions" and coronavirus.

He is now in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) and is expected to be deported back to Lebanon in the next two weeks.

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

But on Monday, a US official told The National such a deal does not exist, and Mr Tajideen’s release is a matter of a 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 on condition of anonymity.

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

Legally, a notice of appeal must be filed within 30 days after entry of the judgment. In Mr Tajideen’s case, the deadline is May 28. He was transferred from prison to an ICE detention centre on June 11.

Local Lebanese reports framed the release as “goodwill gesture” from the US, and part of a possible swap following the release of Lebanese-American dual citizen Amer Fakhoury in March. But the US State Department official denies the hypothesis.

Hezbollah vehicles parade in the streets. Reuters  

“We have seen some inaccurate reports characterising this judicial action as goodwill diplomacy or part of a backroom 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,” he added.

“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.

Tajeddine’s return has been a major ask for the Lebanese General Security Directorate and for Hezbollah.

“The case of Lebanese businessman arrested in the US Kassim Tajjideen 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. Ibrahim has negotiated hostages release from Syria and Iran over the last four years.

Experts following the case voiced concerns on the precedent it would set in place. “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 the organisation United Against Nuclear Iran. “Previous prisoner exchanges involved sanctions evaders, but Mr Tajideen is a Specially Designated Global Terrorist.”

The expert noted Tajideen’s business work and experience in African countries, as further evidence of the importance that Iran and Hezbollah place on the continent. The current commander of the IRGC-QF, Esmail Ghaani, dealt directly with Iran’s influence in West Africa according to the Treasury Department.

Following his arrest in Morocco in 2017, Tajideen 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.

Updated: June 23, 2020 01:54 AM

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