Last week, Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian, his wife Yeganeh Salehi and two photojournalists were arrested in Iran. Officials haven’t explained why a dozen armed men raided Rezaian’s home; they haven’t offered up very much information at all.
But I have a good sense of what Rezaian and his colleagues may be going through. The same thing happened to me.
I was Newsweek’s Iran correspondent from 1998 until 2009. During that time, I was also making documentary films and television reports. As a journalist working for a foreign news agency, I was always under government supervision. I would get invited to “drink tea” in one of Tehran’s posh hotels (the ones that used to be an Intercontinental or Hilton before the 1979 revolution, and are now called Tulip and Independence).
After a short mandatory chitchat about the health of my family and the weather, I’d be subjected to hours of interrogations by members of the Ministry of Intelligence. They’d offer me tea (Iranian spooks love to keep a healthy bladder), then go through everything I’d written or filmed in the prior months. They wanted me to know whatever I was doing, I was being watched. If I did something wrong, bad things could happen to me.
They revoked my press card a few times and asked me to continue reporting in neighboring Iraq, where I worked with more freedom than Iran. I wrote about this for the British magazine New Statesman in 2007. I was interrogated for that piece a few days later.
The Ministry of Intelligence agents were paranoid and distrustful, but they had specific complaints about my work and some knowledge of the international media. Unfortunately, they aren’t the only intelligence arm in Iran. Each agency has its own agents and agenda, and in many cases conflicting agendas. Most are comprised of the Intelligence Ministry’s rejects, people who love to interrogate and torture but don’t know much about espionage.
I later found out that while the ministry was interrogating me, I was being watched by the Revolutionary Guard, a branch of Iran’s military controlled by the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The guard’s intelligence-gathering unit is one of the most fearsome organizations in Iran, not because of its proficiency but because of its vicious methods of physical and psychological torture, as well as its paranoia and obsession with sex.
Maziar Bahari. Image courtesy of the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office
According to an old Persian fable, a rabbit was once running in haste. His friends asked him why he was running so fast. He said, “There are people up the road who will cut off your testicles if they find that you have three!” The friends commented: “But you only have two. So what’s the rush?” The rabbit replied, before dashing away, “But first they cut them and then they count!” This summarizes the Revolutionary Guards’ approach to intelligence gathering. They throw charges at you and they try to find evidence for them.
That’s what happened to me. I had been traveling for work and was between apartments, so I was staying with my mother. At 7 o’clock one morning, the guards forced their way into her apartment. I was still fast asleep. They woke me up and blindfolded me and took me to Evin prison. They didn’t tell me where we were going; they just showed me a photocopy of my arrest warrant. Later, I learned they’d showed the same thing to 500 to 600 other people.
At Evin, I was at their mercy. I was accused of being a spy for different agencies — the CIA, Mossad, MI6 and Newsweek. They interrogated me, then put me into solitary confinement. On the walls, other prisoners had scribbled messages: “My God, have mercy on me;” “My God, I repent;” and “Please help me, God.”
Over the next few days, my life took on a routine of sorts — I’d go to the interrogation room, where I’d be tortured, kicked, punched and slapped, then sent back to solitary confinement. Then back to the interrogation room where my torturer would threaten me with execution and harming my family and friends. I lost track of my days and nights; the only way to know what time it was by three calls to prayer. They were also the only times that I could use the toilet. I was locked up for four months. At times, I wondered how I’d survive. I knew they could keep me forever, or kill me, if they wanted to. So many atrocities have happened since the 1979 revolution; so many innocent people have died in Evin Prison.
To be an innocent prisoner is very empowering.
My family, with the help of Newsweek and The Washington Post Company, fought hard for my release. Dozens of newspapers and magazines published petitions calling for my release. Diplomats negotiated behind the scenes. Very reliable sources later told me that when then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited New York in September 2009, he grew tired of hearing my name in every interview and diplomatic meeting. Eventually the regime gave in. Iran is not North Korea. It deeply cares what people think, and so campaigns against human rights abuses in Iran work.
Right now, I imagine Jason is going through a similar period of insecurity and intimidation. He most probably doesn’t know who arrested him or why. I’m sure he’s being accused of something vague, like undermining the security of the nation or propagating lies against “the Holy Islamic Republic of Iran.”
Things have changed since I was arrested in 2009. That year, millions of people filled the streets demanding that their presidential votes be recounted. The opposition Green Movement didn’t change everything. But it meant that in 2013, during the next presidential election, officials couldn’t rig the vote in the same way. People’s votes were counted. Hassan Rouhani was elected, even though he’s unpopular with the country’s conservatives. This set off panic within the conservative arm of the government. The Revolutionary Guard thinks of Rouhani and his supporters as the enemy and will do anything to undermine him.
Jason’s arrest might be part of that plan. Maybe the Revolutionary Guard wants to interrupt negotiations between Iran and the West, or undermine Rouhani’s government. All we know is that Jason was doing his job as a journalist; that’s why he is in jail. It is very important for us, and Jason, to remember that.
When I was in prison, one thing that kept me strong was knowing that I was innocent. I’d been arrested for doing my job and not a crime. I felt good about that.
To be an innocent prisoner is very empowering.