Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian, imprisoned in Tehran for more than 14 months, has been convicted following an espionage trial that ended in August, Iranian media reported Monday. The verdict — belated and opaque — was strongly condemned by the journalist’s family and colleagues, as well as the U.S. government.
State-run TV and the Iranian Students’ News Agency both quoted Gholam Hossein Mohseni-Ejei, a spokesman for Tehran’s Revolutionary Court, as saying Rezaian, 39, had been found guilty. But Mohseni-Ejei offered no specifics on which charges were involved or whether a sentence had been imposed.
“He has been convicted, but I don’t have the verdict’s detail,” said Mohseni-Ejei, a hard-liner and former prosecutor who criticized Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif for shaking hands with President Obama during a chance encounter at the United Nations last month, comparing the gesture to consorting with the enemy.
Rezaian faced four charges — the most serious being espionage. The judge who heard the case is known for handing down harsh sentences, and Rezaian potentially faces a sentence of 10 to 20 years.
Rezaian and The Post have strongly denied the accusations, and the prosecution has drawn wide-ranging denunciations, including statements from the White House and press freedom groups.
Martin Baron, executive editor of The Post, called the guilty verdict “an outrageous injustice” and “contemptible.”
“Iran has behaved unconscionably throughout this case, but never more so than with this indefensible decision by a Revolutionary Court to convict an innocent journalist of serious crimes after a proceeding that unfolded in secret, with no evidence whatsoever of any wrongdoing,” he said in a statement.
Because there was no announcement of a sentence, the judgment led to speculation that Iran would press for a prisoner swap with the United States. In recent weeks, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has repeatedly floated the idea that the authorities in Tehran could free Rezaian and two other Iranian American prisoners if Washington reciprocated by releasing 19 Iranian citizens in U.S. custody for circumventing sanctions.
The Iranians have declined to say which prisoners they are referring to, but a number of Iranians and Iranian Americans have been convicted of attempting to circumvent U.S. economic sanctions and export controls on Iran. U.S. officials have declined to discuss any possible swap.
The state-run Islamic Republic of Iran News Network reported Monday that Rezaian was accused of “spying on Iran’s nuclear programs” and providing the U.S. government with information on people and companies skirting sanctions. “The information that Rezaian provided to the Americans resulted in many Iranian and international businessmen and companies being placed on America’s sanctions list,” the network reported on its Web site.
Rezaian’s trial was held entirely behind closed doors, and his attorneys were barred from discussing the proceedings. The few details that have emerged have been in Iranian news reports.
Ali Rezaian said his younger brother, whose physical and mental health is deteriorating in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison, knows that a verdict was announced but nothing more.
Rezaian’s wife, Yeganeh Salehi, and his mother went to court Monday with a defense lawyer seeking more information but came away empty-handed, he said.
“This follows an unconscionable pattern by Iranian authorities of silence, obfuscation, delay and a total lack of adherence to international and Iranian law,” he said.
The State Department described the process as “incomprehensible.”
“Regardless of whether there has been a conviction or not, we continue to call for the government of Iran to drop all charges against Jason and release him immediately,” said State Department spokesman John Kirby.
Born in Marin County, Calif., to an Iranian father and an American mother, Rezaian, a dual national, moved to Iran in 2008 and worked as a journalist for various publications, including the San Francisco Chronicle. He joined The Post in 2012 and wrote stories that he hoped would give readers a deeper and more nuanced view of Iran; one of the last before his arrest recounted the travails of the country’s fledgling baseball team.
Rezaian and his wife were arrested on July 22, 2014, when plainclothes police raided their apartment. Two Iranian American photojournalists were also arrested. The photographers were later released, and Salehi was freed on bail two months later. She still faces prosecution and is barred from working as a reporter for her employer, the National newspaper in the United Arab Emirates.
Many of the conditions of Rezaian’s detention violate Iran’s own laws and constitutional guarantees. He spent months in solitary confinement. He was also denied bail, a translator and, initially, legal representation.
Iran does not recognize dual nationality, and it barred any U.S. role in the case, including consular visits by diplomats representing U.S. interests.
During months of negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, State Department officials repeatedly urged Iran to release Rezaian and two other imprisoned Americans, Saeed Abedini of Boise, Idaho, and Amir Hekmati of Flint, Mich. The talks were always on the sidelines, however, because negotiators did not want Iran to use them as a lever to extract concessions in the nuclear negotiations.
The nuclear deal, which led Iran to accept limits on its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief, is as controversial in Tehran as it is in Washington. Relative moderates such as Rouhani want to open the country to more international trade. Hard-liners fear it will make Iran vulnerable to foreign influence and undermine the 1979 revolution.
Some analysts believe Rezaian became ensnared in this fierce domestic policy debate, with hard-liners who control the courts and the intelligence agencies seeking to undercut Rouhani before February elections.
“This is politicized justice at its worst,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the New York-based International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.
Other analysts believe the verdict also telegraphs to Rouhani that his power is limited.
“I think it is all part of an effort to send a message to Rouhani that the nuclear deal is a one-off and that he will not be able to satisfy the demands of his supporters for a more liberal social order,” said Barbara Slavin, a fellow with the Atlantic Council who makes frequent trips to Iran. “In a way, Jason is a victim of the success of the nuclear talks.”
Outside Iran, few believe Rezaian was acting in any capacity other than as a journalist.
“The reason they have been very secretive about the case is they are using him as a pawn in a fight for the government,” said Omid Memarian, an Iranian journalist and a friend of Rezaian’s who is now living New York. “The hard-liners know the world has asked Rouhani to do something for Jason. He has to tell the world he cannot do anything. That undermines his authority. What kind of president cannot defend the rights of [his] citizens?”
Haleh Esfandiari, an Iranian scholar at the Washington-based Wilson Center, said that the announced verdict suggests the hard-liners who control the Revolutionary Court have concluded that no prisoner swap with the United States is likely.
“One has to bring a tremendous amount of pressure on the government of Iran now. Iran needs a face-saving solution,” said Esfandiari, who was arrested and detained in Iran in 2007 and accused of endangering national security. “That is the nature of the regime.”