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Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian and family to testify in federal lawsuit against Iran

Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian was released from an Iranian prison in January 2016. Here's what you need to know about the case against him. (Video: Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

Three years after his release from a Tehran prison, Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian is set to testify in federal court Tuesday that he was taken hostage and psychologically tortured by the Iranian government to extract U.S. concessions before the 2016 implementation of a historic pact limiting Iran’s nuclear program.

Rezaian, 43, and family members are expected to take the witness stand and provide the most detailed public accounting yet of his 18 months in captivity, from 2014 to 2016 and the two-month imprisonment of his wife, Yeganeh Salehi.

Rezaian was The Post’s correspondent in Tehran from 2012 to 2016 and is now a writer for its Global Opinions section.

His federal lawsuit seeks millions of dollars in damages from Iran and alleges that he was targeted for arrest to “extort” the U.S. government in the multinational talks and told by Iranian officials that he and his wife had “value” for a prisoner swap.

U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon of Washington, D.C., scheduled up to two days of testimony by Rezaian, his brother, Ali Rezaian, their mother, Mary Rezaian, doctors and other experts documenting injuries and other effects during and after the correspondent’s arrest, trial and conviction in Iran on espionage and related charges.

Ultimately, Jason Rezaian was freed in a prisoner swap completed the day the nuclear accord was implemented, on Jan. 16, 2016, along with Christian pastor Saeed Abedini and U.S. Marine Corps veteran Amir Mirza Hekmati. They were released in exchange for U.S. grants of clemency to seven Iranians charged or imprisoned on sanctions violations.

Read the full lawsuit filed by the Rezaian family

“For 544 days, Jason suffered such physical mistreatment and severe psychological abuse in Evin Prison that he will never be the same,” the suit alleged. “He will require specialized medical and other treatment for the rest of his life.”

Iran has not responded to the lawsuit, filed in October 2016. In June 2017, the Rezaians asked the court to enter a default judgment and monetary penalties.

Iran’s permanent mission to the United Nations in New York did not respond to requests for comment on the court hearing to establish liability and damages.

Salehi is not a plaintiff in the case.

The Rezaian lawsuit is the latest attempt by Americans to have the U.S. justice system provide compensation for harms inflicted by the Iranian government — in particular, by the powerful and hard-line Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is named as a co-defendant in the suit.

The lawsuit was brought under a “terrorism exception” to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.

That law generally bars U.S. citizens from suing foreign governments in domestic courts except for circumstances including cases of terrorist acts, torture or hostage-taking by state sponsors of terrorism as designated by the State Department. Iran is on the department’s list and engaged in all three activities, the Rezaian lawsuit contends.

In a number of suits brought against it over the years, Iran has not responded, resulting in default judgments totaling about $46 billion for terrorism victims since 1996, the Congressional Research Service reported last year.

But collecting has been difficult.

10 harrowing details about Jason Rezaian and Yeganeh Salehi’s imprisonment in Iran

In 2016, the Supreme Court upheld a law allowing American victims of terrorism and their families to collect almost $2 billion in seized Iranian assets in a case that involved relatives of people killed or injured in the 1983 bombing of a U.S. Marine Corps barracks in Beirut. Iran labeled the decision “confiscation” and “theft.”

The funds to pay out in that case belong to Iran’s central bank and were frozen in the New York account of a Luxembourg-based securities firm in 2008. Litigation over another $1.7 billion linked to the securities firm is pending before the high court.

Victims who have won judgments are also pursuing an estimated $1 billion in frozen real estate assets traced to Iran’s Bank Melli, including interests in a ­36-story office building in New York City and other properties in five states, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Another source of compensation for victims with court judgments is the U.S. Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Fund, approved by Congress in 2015 to compensate them and Americans held hostage in Iran during the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran after the 1979 revolution. The fund uses money obtained by the Justice Department from a civil penalty paid by BNP Paribas bank for violating sanctions against Iran, Cuba and Sudan and from other terrorism fines paid by banks.

About $2.2 billion has been allocated for more than 2,000 eligible claimants in the first three years of the fund’s authorized ­10-year life.

However, claims on the fund have increased sharply since its creation, notably after a federal court found 9/11 victims eligible for compensation from it.

The added demand has left less money available to enforce judgments obtained by victims of other attacks, said Steven R. Perles, a lawyer who has specialized in reparations for American victims of terrorism. As a result, prospects for future, non-9/11 claimants to enforce their judgments are “dire,” he said.

Detention taking ‘devastating toll’ on Post reporter locked up in Iran

In a case similar to Rezaian’s, Hekmati, the former U.S. Marine freed with him, filed suit and was awarded $63 million in 2017 by a federal judge. Hekmati is a dual U.S.-Iranian national who was born in the United States and worked in Iraq and Afghanistan as a cultural analyst and adviser for U.S. defense contractors. He was making his first trip to Iran to visit relatives when he was seized, held prisoner for 4½ years, coerced into making a false confession and convicted of espionage before his release, a U.S. judge found.

Iran did not respond to his lawsuit, and Hekmati is still pursuing enforcement of the award.

Tuesday’s hearing was scheduled by the court in December but coincidentally comes two weeks before the long-planned Jan. 22 publication of Rezaian’s memoir, “Prisoner,” by a division of Harper­Collins. The lawsuit and memoir detail Rezaian’s account of solitary confinement, a sham trial and the diplomatic battle for his freedom led by former secretary of state John F. Kerry.

The family’s lawsuit links key moments in the nuclear negotiations to Rezaian’s treatment in the judicial system, from arrest to conviction to sentencing and, ultimately, release.

Rezaian and Salehi, who was born in Iran and married Rezaian there, were arrested on July 22, 2014, by Iranian agents wearing surgical masks who forced their way into the couple’s apartment and took them for questioning at Evin Prison, a notorious site for political prisoners. Salehi was freed 71 days later on a $32,000 bail provided by her brother-in-law, Ali Rezaian.

Jason Rezaian was eventually tried and convicted on espionage and related charges, according to Iranian state media accounts, although the government did not officially disclose specifics of his trial or sentence.

Rezaian, his family and their attorney, David Bowker, declined to comment for this article.

Jason Rezaian works to reclaim his life after return to the U.S.

Their lawsuit alleges Rezaian and Salehi were repeatedly subjected to psychological and physical abuse during long interrogations that included threats of execution, physical mutilation and dismemberment.

Rezaian, Salehi and Ali Rezaian each contemplated suicide, and each of the plaintiffs seeks damages for emotional suffering, including trauma and guilt, according to the suit.

They also “live in constant fear that Iranian agents are spying on them, plotting additional acts of terrorism and planning ways to hurt them and their family members again,” the suit says.

In a statement when the lawsuit was filed, Post Executive Editor Martin Baron said: “This legal filing is a stark telling of Iran’s brutal and heartless treatment of an innocent journalist and his wife, and the impact on those who love him. While this legal action is being taken solely by Jason and his family, The Post continues to support the Rezaians through their long and painful recovery.’’

Katie Townsend, legal director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, called Iran’s treatment of Rezaian and his wife “indefensible and inexcusable.” She added: “At a time when journalists around the world are facing increasing threats of violence and imprisonment simply for reporting the news, we hope that Jason’s lawsuit discourages not only Iran, but also other regimes, from inflicting these kinds of unconscionable harms on journalists.”

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To get Rezaian to confess to espionage, the suit states, one interrogator threatened him with beheading, while another suggested a video confession was his only way out.

Rezaian’s incarceration included 50 days in solitary confinement and sleeping on the floor in a dank, cockroach-infested cell. As a result, Rezaian experienced hallucinations that the walls were moving and talking to him, the suit alleges.

Rezaian experiences depression, sleeplessness, short-term memory loss and other symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder, the suit says.