Tuesday brought another set of stunning circumstances in the saga of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, who has been imprisoned in Iran for 10 months. Rezaian’s trial on espionage and other charges got underway in Branch 15 of the Tehran Revolutionary Court, though just what happened is difficult to ascertain because the proceedings took place behind closed doors.
U.S. media organizations, accordingly, had to rely on Iranian media reports of the particulars of the session. The Post, citing the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency, noted that the judge in Rezaian’s case, Abolghassem Salavati, read a four-count indictment against the reporter. Leila Ahsan, Rezaian’s lawyer, has been quoted as saying that Rezaian “has been charged with espionage for collecting information about the country’s domestic and foreign policy issues. According to the indictment, he is also facing the charges of collecting confidential information, collaborating with hostile governments, spreading propaganda against the Islamic republic and writing a letter to the US president [Barack] Obama.”
On that last front, Post Executive Editor Martin Baron today issued this statement: “Shortly after the 2008 election of President Obama, more than three years before Jason began working for The Post, he applied online for a job in the incoming Obama administration, citing his familiarity with Iran and a wide cross-section of Iranian society. Jason received an unsigned, form response by e-mail and was never hired. Instead, he continued his work as a freelance journalist in Tehran until he began reporting for The Post in 2012 as the newspaper’s full-time Tehran correspondent. Jason never wrote directly to President Obama and was never hired by the Obama administration.”
Rezaian’s wife, Yeganeh Salehi, and mother, Mary Rezaian, went to the courthouse but couldn’t get into the room or even glimpse the defendant, as The Post reported. “We have absolutely no idea what happened in court, other than the fact the indictment against Jason was read,” Ali Rezaian, Jason’s brother, told The Post. The newspaper also tried to secure courtroom access for a top editor, but the request went unanswered.
Rezaian and Salehi were arrested on July 22. Post Executive Editor Martin Baron said in a statement, “Sadly, inexplicably, we continue to hear nothing from Iran about Jason, his wife, Yeganeh, and other detainees. We do not know where he is, we do not know why he is being held, and we know nothing about his health.” Salehi was later released on bail. Two other journalists detained on the same day were subsequently freed.
Though U.S. officials have raised Rezaian’s imprisonment in talks over a nuclear accord, a deal securing his release isn’t expected to come from those discussions.
Yesterday the Erik Wemple Blog interviewed Baron about the Rezaian situation. He and other newsroom leaders, Publisher Fred Ryan, company lawyers and outside counsel have worked together on the reporter’s detention. Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos, notes Baron, “is deeply concerned about Jason’s imprisonment, as we all are, and he has supported the full range of our efforts to gain his release.” The Post is “paying legal expenses related to Jason’s case, including fees for his Iranian lawyer,” Baron said.
Below is an edited version of our chat:
Prior to Jason’s arrest, did anybody see anything coming?
No, nothing … no warning, no anticipation, no signal, no nothing that I’m aware of.
What has happened to your work life? How much time does this issue occupy?
It’s not just me, we have a whole team that’s working this. So that involves our lawyers, outside counsel, [Foreign Editor] Doug [Jehl], [Deputy Foreign Editor] Karin [Brulliard].
Not now. Initially we had more meetings about this, but now we basically communicate via e-mail. We periodically have get-togethers occasionally where Jason’s brother Ali has attended, at key moments to talk about what our approach might be. We’ve had meetings with people in the administration, we’ve had meetings with others I can’t specify. Our publisher has been involved. There’s not much we can do every day about this.
When Fred Ryan was hired as publisher, he was seen as a Washington insider — has he been working those contacts for this situation?
He’s been very helpful. He’s very concerned about this. He’s set up meetings with people in the [Obama] administration, he has had conversations with some senior officials in other governments as well. He’s as concerned about this as the rest of us are, which is to say extremely concerned about it. And he’s been very helpful and it’s at the top of his list of priorities. How could it not be? It’s important to realize that we can’t snap our fingers and just get him released. … I think people should realize that we as a media organization have little to no influence over there and the American government has limited influence in Iran as well.
You said outside counsel — have you hired anybody to deal with the diplomatic side of it, to push the State Department?
Not sure I can [identify the outside counsel].
What’s the overall sense from this team — is it one of resignation, one of just frustration?
I don’t think that’s it. We want the administration to do everything it could to bring pressure on the Iranians and have conversations with the Iranians about getting Jason released and, at least initially, getting him better care and better conditions in prison but ultimately to get him released. The administration had many of those conversations with the Iranians during the nuclear talks. There were side conversations about him and presumably other Americans who are held in Iran, and there were a number of those, from what I understand from people in the administration.
Are you satisfied that the administration is doing everything it can here?
I have no reason to believe that it isn’t doing everything it can. And we had conversations with other governments that we thought could be helpful.
Can you name those governments?
Do you feel strange being part of the story as opposed to pushing a story as editor?
No, I don’t feel strange. Unfortunately, I’ve been part of many stories — not this kind of story. It can be awkward because we have to cover the story of Iran at the same time and we want to do that objectively, and yet we have very strong views, of course, about how Jason has been treated, how this whole case has been handled and the endless series of injustices to which he’s been subjected. So we still endeavor to cover the nuclear talks and the whole discussion surrounding that, to cover that objectively. But we have very strong opinions about how Jason has been treated, and we’ve not been hesitant to express that point of view.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has suggested that a low-level U.S. intelligence operative may have “tried to take advantage” of Rezaian. What about that?
What I have to say about that is that neither the court nor the prosecutors nor anyone in the Iranian government has actually provided any evidence whatsoever to support the allegations that he engaged in espionage or did anything other than act as a normal journalist would. There’s been absolutely no evidence provided for that. Regardless of what anybody might say during an interview intimating something or other, the question is, where’s the evidence? And there is no evidence.
Have you been face to face with any State Department officials, pounding the table?
I’m not a pound-the-table kind of person. We’ve had meetings with people in the administration. The administration is well aware of our enormous concern about this. We’ve made that clear. We’ve had repeated meetings with various people high up in the administration about it. They, too, have expressed their grave concern about the situation; they understand the urgency of the matter.
There’s no need for histrionics here. One can use normal language in having these kinds of conversations. They understand that we view this with the greatest of seriousness. They do too. It’s not as if the U.S. government can launch a rescue mission. This is not Hollywood here. They’ve made clear that they want Jason released. The president has addressed his case on at least a couple of occasions by name. And the State Department has made clear its desire to have him released.
Have you been across the table from Secretary of State John Kerry on this matter?
With people at the State Department, not Kerry himself.
The Iranians say they don’t even recognize that the United States has legal standing in the case.
Right, because he has dual citizenship. He acquired his Iranian citizenship relatively recently, and now the Iranians consider him to be an Iranian citizen and therefore not subject to consular intervention or any kind of intervention by the United States.
You talked about the implications for Iranian coverage. Has there been any need for yourself to pull yourself out of it?
It’s impossible for me to recuse myself from coverage of Iran. It’s impossible for Doug as foreign editor to recuse himself from coverage of Iran; that would just be nonsensical. But as I said, we still endeavor to cover the Iran subject in the way that we normally would, and we do continue to do that.
In most countries it’s an obvious injustice. I mean, the guy has been in prison for almost 10 months. The way he’s been treated would not be tolerated in … most countries, and it’s not a system of justice. You’ve got a guy who was initially arrested along with his wife and two others. He wasn’t even told what the charges were, why he was being held. He was held for months in isolation, very bad conditions. He was denied the medical care that he needed.
Finally he got some better conditions. He was not allowed to select a lawyer of his choosing. He had to pick from among lawyers who were preapproved by the court. Months passed without him being able to see a lawyer. He finally was able to meet with his lawyer for an hour and a half. That’s it, that’s all, that’s the sum total of his meeting with his lawyer prior to the trial beginning. The lawyer found out about the commencement of the trial only a week before it was to occur. And then you have a trial where it’s closed to the public and no one from the outside can witness how the so-called justice is being administered.
Have you gotten any help from other media outlets that have had people in Iran?
There have been a lot of people in media who’ve dealt this before who’ve offered us advice on how we should respond. We’ve taken all that advice in, and a lot of it has been very useful to us. Unfortunately we haven’t seen any results.
Are you aware of other situations parallel to this one?
As I understand it, he’s been held longer than any other accredited journalist by far. Not longer than any other American obviously.
He was accredited and accredited again. He was a journalist in good standing in Iran. He had seemingly good professional relationships with people throughout Iranian society, including senior figures in the government in his journalistic capacity. And he was just doing his job.
If Rezaian gets out and returns to the United States, will you put another person in Iran?
I think we should just take these things step by step. Why don’t we get him released first? That would be good.
We’re not in a position to think about what happens next. We’re completely focused on getting him released, getting him the freedom he deserves and getting his wife the freedom she deserves as well, because she’s going to face trial also.