The family of Jason Rezaian, a Washington Post reporter who has been detained in Iran for more than half a year, issued a statement Sunday that was sharply critical of the Iranian government, after what they called the “very disturbing” development that Rezaian and his wife will be tried by a judge known for imposing harsh sentences.
Rezaian’s brother, Ali, and their mother, Mary Rezaian, questioned the rationale for assigning the case to Judge Abolghassem Salavati, the head of a Revolutionary Court branch where sensitive cases are tried. Salavati has imposed long prison sentences, lashings and in some cases death for defendants in a number of high-profile cases involving national security and political offenses. He has been sanctioned by the European Union since 2011.
“We find it very disturbing that the judiciary would select a judge to oversee the case who has been sanctioned by (and barred from entering) the European Union due to what it calls ‘gross human rights violations,’ ” the family said.
The 38-year-old reporter was arrested July 22 along with his wife, Yeganeh Salehi, who also is a reporter. Salehi was released on bail, but Rezaian has been detained ever since and has been unable to see a lawyer. The exact nature of the charges against him has never been made clear, other than a statement saying he was accused of activities beyond the scope of journalism.
His family denied the accusations and pointedly contrasted his actions with those of the Iranian government.
“Jason has dedicated the past decade of his life to informing the world of the true nature of Iran, the Iranian people, and their culture,” the statement said. “In stark contrast, the Iranian government has spent the past six months displaying to the world a disregard for its own laws and the international human rights agreements that it has pledged to follow.
“What Iran expects to gain from the prolonged and unjust detention of Jason is unclear to us. What is evident to us, though, is that this ‘trial’ has nothing to do with Jason or Yeganeh’s actual actions, and may simply be a pretense to distract the world from some other motive the government may have.”
News that their case had been assigned to Salavati, which was first reported by the New York Times, appears to reflect an ongoing power struggle between moderates surrounding President Hassan Rouhani and hard-liners allied with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The Post’s executive editor, Martin Baron, called for Rezaian’s release in a statement Sunday.
“There has been no justice in the case of our colleague Jason Rezaian since the beginning,” Baron said. “He was held for months without knowing the accusations against him. Now that the case is proceeding to trial, the charges still have not been specified. He still hasn’t been allowed to see a lawyer. This case has unfolded, and continues to unfold, without a hint of fairness and justice. Jason should be released immediately. What has happened to him is an abomination and deserves the world’s condemnation.”
The Rezaians echoed the sense of urgency, saying, “We remain hopeful that the proper authorities will ensure that the court will quickly convene and that the judge, despite his reputation, will even more quickly discover no basis for a finding other than ‘not guilty’ and will order Jason released immediately.”
The jurist selected to preside over the case is known among human rights groups for his actions as head of the Revolutionary Court’s Branch 15, responsible for adjudicating cases involving national security.
Salavati is among a handful of judges who have handed down stiff sentences for alleged offenses by journalists, lawyers, activists and minority groups. Salavati regularly issues the toughest sentences of all, including the death penalty for anti-government protesters.
In a case that received international attention, Salavati imposed an eight-year prison sentence on two American hikers who were picked up near Iran’s border with Iraq in 2009 and accused of espionage. After spending more than two years in prison, the two were released on bail.
Salavati has frequently locked up critics of the government. In 2012, he gave the daughter of moderate former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani six months in prison after she said in an interview with a foreign, Persian-language online publication that the country was being run by “thugs and hoodlums.” She was charged with engaging in “propaganda against the system.”
For many Iranians, Salavati’s name is intimately connected with the trials of hundreds of protesters arrested after the disputed reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June 2009. In nationally televised proceedings in his courtroom, dozens of defendants confessed to participating in protests inspired by Western intelligence agencies. Several of the protesters were sentenced to death, including one who had admitted to throwing a rock.
“He’s known for issuing death sentences and very heavy prison sentences for basically political charges,” said Rod Sanjabi, executive director of the Connecticut-based Iran Human Rights Documentation Center. “Typically, the chances are there has been coercion and the extraction of a confession, and the likelihood of inadequate rights of counsel. That is how cases function in the Revolutionary courts. But even within that context, he has a reputation of being a hanging judge with no apparent legal knowledge.”
Faraz Sanei, an Iran researcher for Human Rights Watch, said some former prisoners and lawyers who have appeared in court before Salavati say they were not allowed to present a defense. Others accuse the judge of being a rubber stamp for Iran’s intelligence services.
Despite his reputation, Salavati remains a shadowy figure. His résumé is unknown, and it is unclear whether he attended law school. It also is not certain that Salavati is his real name. According to Sanei, many Revolutionary Court judges use pseudonyms.
Revolutionary Court judges do not have the last word in the Iranian judicial system, though. Death-penalty cases automatically go to the Supreme Court for a final decision, while national security cases are sent to appellate courts that often reduce, but sometimes increase, prison terms.
Rezaian holds dual U.S. and Iranian citizenship, but the Iranian government considers him solely Iranian, denying any access to him by diplomats representing U.S. interests in Tehran. His family has reported that his health is failing and that his emotional strength is waning.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry and other U.S. officials have used talks with Iran over Tehran’s nuclear program as a forum to raise the issue of the incarceration of Rezaian and other Americans jailed in Iran.
On Sunday, the State Department said it had seen the latest reports. “We continue to call for Jason’s immediate release so that he can be reunited with his family,” said an official who spoke on the condition of anonymity in accordance with department protocol.