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Convicted Hezbollah financier arrives in Lebanon after early release

Kassim Tajideen, 65, was released by US on medical grounds amid concerns over spread of coronavirus
Kassim Tajideen was convicted by the US of evading sanctions and financing Hezbollah
Kassim Tajideen, right, was convicted by US of evading sanctions and financing Hezbollah (AFP)

A Lebanese-Belgian businessman convicted in the United States of financing Hezbollah has returned to Beirut following his early release from prison on compassionate grounds, local media reported on Wednesday.

Kassim Tajideen's arrival was broadcast by LBC, a Lebanese TV station, as he stepped out of a small jet, wearing a face mask as a coronavirus precaution.

Tajideen - who was arrested in Morocco and extradited to the US in 2017 - was fined $50m and last year sentenced to five years in prison by a federal court for his role in a money-laundering scheme aimed at evading US sanctions and financing Hezbollah.

He pleaded guilty last December to evading sanctions and making illegal transactions worth almost $1bn.

Middle East Eye reported last month that a federal judge had ordered the 65-year-old's release on medical grounds amid concerns over the spread of the coronavirus.

Despite his release, Tajideen remains blacklisted by the US Department of the Treasury as a "specially designated global terrorist". The US says Hezbollah is a terrorist group and accuses it of being an Iranian proxy.

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"The fact that he is being released early due to health concerns and removed from the United States does not diminish the severity of his crime," a Treasury spokesperson previously told MEE. 

Tajideen - a commodities trader across the Middle East and Africa - was slapped with the terror finance designation by the US in May 2009. With the label came sanctions that largely locked him out of global financial networks.

The designation identified him as an "important financial contributor" to Hezbollah.

Tajideen initially insisted on his innocence, before accepting a guilty plea on money-laundering conspiracy charges. 

His release comes months after Lebanon ordered the release of Amer Fakhoury, known also as "the Butcher of Khiam", a Lebanese-American business owner held on charges of torturing detainees while working for an Israeli-backed militia.

Fakhoury had admitted to being a warden at the infamous Khiam prison. 

The State Department denied claims that Tajideen's release was linked to that of Fakhoury. "We have seen some inaccurate reports characterising this judicial action as 'goodwill diplomacy' or part of a 'backroom deal' [related to Fakhoury's release]," a State Department spokesperson said last month, when Tajideen was being prepared for deportation. "Those reports are false."

Fakhoury, 57, who had faced decades-old murder and torture charges in Lebanon, became a US citizen last year, and is now a restaurant owner in Dover, New Hampshire. US officials had called for sanctions to pressure Beirut to release him following his detention during a visit to Lebanon last year.

He had fled Lebanon after the Israeli army's withdrawal in 2000 and eventually settled in the United States, where he became a citizen through one of his children, having reportedly been rejected as a candidate for political asylum.