Iran’s style of arrests is much like Russia’s in the early 1900s: fabricated charges and an appointed lawyer who doesn’t represent the accused
Telling the Story
BY AMY DAVIDSON
CREDIT ILLUSTRATION BY TOM BACHTELL
A year ago, at the Cannes film festival, Leila Hatami, an Iranian movie star best known in this country for her role in “A Separation,” was walking the red carpet, wearing a gold-embroidered turban and a matching long-sleeved dress, when she encountered Gilles Jacob, the festival’s president. She reached out to shake his hand, but he kissed her on the cheek, and that, as the Washington Post’s Tehran correspondent, Jason Rezaian, wrote, is when the “fuss” began back home. Certain factions in Iran had portrayed the kiss as an affront to Islam; a student group called for the actress to be publicly flogged. Rezaian, a thirty-nine-year-old Californian who had been working in Iran for six years, wrote that Hatami had apologized in a statement in which she said that she regretted “hurting the feelings of some people.” She had not wanted to be kissed. Jacob, she said, had simply forgotten the “rules.”
Eight weeks after the story ran, Rezaian himself was under arrest in Tehran, and it was hard to say what rules he may have transgressed—no charges were made public. His writing about Iran had been marked by cultural generosity and care. One of the last stories he wrote before he was jailed was about Iran’s tiny but emerging baseball scene, in which he described the players’ love of the game and the impact of the economic sanctions on their aspirations. (“Catcher’s mitts and gloves for left-handers are scarce.”) Rezaian is a dual citizen—his father was Iranian—and those who know him say that he did not intend to insult or injure Iran, though he had no interest in whitewashing it, either; another recent Post story he wrote was about how government mismanagement had precipitated a water crisis.
Rezaian’s wife, Yeganeh Salehi, who is an Iranian citizen and a reporter for the National, an English-language newspaper based in Abu Dhabi, was arrested at the same time. She was eventually released on bail, but for the past ten months Rezaian has been held at the Evin prison, which is notorious for its many executions and its abuse of political prisoners. His mother, Mary Rezaian, was allowed just two brief visits with him five months ago, and he has spent a substantial amount of time in solitary confinement. Joel Simon, of the Committee to Protect Journalists, has called him the victim of a “judicial kidnapping.”
Rezaian’s trial began last Tuesday, just a few weeks after his family finally learned what crimes he may have been charged with: espionage, collaborating with hostile governments, and “propaganda against the establishment.” Even then, the news came through a lawyer whom Rezaian had not chosen and who has met with him only briefly. The proceedings, held in Revolutionary Court Branch 15, are off limits to the public. The charges, which carry a possible sentence of up to twenty years, have no apparent basis in fact—which may be why the government is choosing to pillory in secret a man whose profession was openness. The judge, Abolghassem Salavati, is known for condemning dissidents to death and for having presided over a mass trial in which scores of activists and journalists were compelled to give televised confessions. In Rezaian’s case, after a few hours of questioning behind closed doors, Salavati adjourned the trial indefinitely. Martin Baron, the executive editor of the Post, said in a statement, “There is no justice in this system, not an ounce of it, and yet the fate of a good, innocent man hangs in the balance.”
The months of Rezaian’s imprisonment have also been a period of intense nuclear negotiations between the United States and Iran. One theory is that Rezaian is being held to give the Iranians leverage in the talks, or, since some elements of the government feel that President Hassan Rouhani is conceding too much, to sabotage them. Mohammad Javad Zarif, the foreign minister and the lead nuclear negotiator, who dealt with Rezaian as a reporter before his arrest, said in April that he hoped “my friend Jason” would be acquitted, but he also insinuated that American intelligence might have “tried to take advantage” of Rezaian. This may be interpreted as the expedient equivocating of a nonetheless reform-minded official, but it is not reassuring. The opacity of the Iranian system makes it hard to sort out the various motives.
When a journalist is put on trial for doing his job, there are two kinds of attacks on the truth. The first is an effort to suppress particular ideas and information. Rezaian seems to have an instinct for how stories of all kinds can orient us in the midst of politicized cacophony. The second takes the form of an expressed preference for lies. When a judge demands testimony that he knows is false to prove a crime he knows has been concocted, he is rejecting the idea that there is value in searching for the truth. This is the inverse of journalism.
Rezaian is not alone. The Committee to Protect Journalists’ year-end census counted thirty journalists in Iranian prisons, out of two hundred and twenty-one imprisoned worldwide. The tally included forty-four in China and twenty-three in Eritrea, a country of little more than six million people. This was the second-highest count since the C.P.J. began keeping track, in 1990. (The United States is not on the current list, but that is not necessarily a reason for complacency; lately, the government has been aggressively pursuing investigative reporters’ sources, under the Espionage Act.) Prosecution is not the only threat: this year began with journalists being killed in a magazine office in Paris, because gunmen objected to their cartoons. That was followed by less well-known cases, such as the death, in March, of Danilo López, a Guatemalan reporter who was shot in a park after writing stories about local corruption. Changes in the news industry have also meant that wars are being covered by increasingly vulnerable freelancers, equipped with barely more than smartphones. Rezaian worked freelance for years before the Post hired him.
The Post applied for a visa so that one of its editors could attend Rezaian’s trial, but the request went unanswered. His wife is still in Iran, and she may go on trial soon. His mother is in the country, too. Even after learning that the proceedings would be closed, the paper reported, she went to the courthouse so that when Jason arrived he would see her. She waited for hours, but he was taken in and out through a back entrance. He may not even have known that she was there. ♦