Iran’s revolutionary courts, where Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian is being tried on espionage and related charges, are notorious among human rights activists as venues where verdicts are preordained and proceedings can finish in minutes.
“Nobody thinks the result is ever in question,” said Rod Sanjabi, executive director of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, a New Haven, Conn.-
based group that the Iranian government has labeled as subversive.
The trial of Rezaian, The Post’s Tehran bureau chief who has been jailed for more than 10 months, is shining the spotlight anew on the branch of Iran’s court system that hears national-security cases, broadly defined to include the prosecution of dissidents and journalists.
“Anything that’s a crime against the system or a threat to the system itself winds up under the rubric of the revolutionary courts,” said Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department official who studies Iran at the Brookings Institution.
Rezaian’s case may stem from infighting among hard-liners and moderates at a critical moment in the country’s negotiations over its nuclear program with the United States and five other world powers.
Pragmatists, represented by President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, appear to want a deal that would end Iran’s isolation by easing economic sanctions in return for outside monitoring and cuts in its nuclear program. Such an outcome could undermine the power of hard-liners, who are sustained by enmity with the West.
“The revolutionary courts are a very powerful tool for hard-liners to challenge reformists,” said Mehrangiz Kar, a lawyer who once argued cases in the revolutionary courts and later was a defendant accused of espionage and propaganda against the Islamic Republic. She now lives in suburban Washington.
“Now that the direction of foreign policy is shifting in the negotiations, someone like Jason Rezaian can be trapped in the courts. The hard-liners are very afraid that after [pragmatists’] success in negotiations, they will probably be weakened.”
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Friday that the United States would not turn Rezaian and other American citizens held in Iran into “bargaining chips.”
“We’re not going to negotiate for their release,” he said. “They should be released because they are being held unjustly.”
The State Department, several journalistic organizations and human rights groups condemned the closed proceeding at the opening of Rezaian’s trial on Tuesday. The hearing adjourned after a few hours with no indication of when, or whether, it would resume.
Iran has pushed back against the criticism of its judicial system. In a statement on the Foreign Ministry Web site, spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham said it was up to the judge to decide Rezaian’s fate.
“In any country, questions of justice, judicial process and inquiry have their own procedures,” she said. “There is no room for premature judgement and speculation.”
The revolutionary courts emerged amid the chaos after Iran’s 1979 revolution. They were backed by Ayatollah Khomeini, who encouraged competing institutions with dual authority during the power struggles of the post-shah era. Thousands of people who had worked for the shah were put to death by the courts.
Today, 36 years after the revolution, the courts technically are overseen by the judicial branch. But in reality, they are a political instrument and answer to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Some of the courts’ judges are clerics who studied Islamic law; others have bachelor’s degrees with a focus on the law. It is not known whether Abolghassem Salavati, the hard-line judge overseeing Rezaian’s case, has any training in the law, Sanjabi said.
“Revolutionary courts, although originally expected to be temporary, remain in place because they have proven extremely useful as an instrument [for] prosecuting politically motivated cases,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the New York-based International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.
The courts handed down lengthy prison sentences to many opposition protesters after the disputed 2009 presidential election.
They also convicted two American hikers of espionage and sentenced them to eight years in prison in 2011 after they inadvertently wandered across the border with Iraq. They were eventually released. In 2000, 10 Jewish men were convicted of being spies for Israel after the court said their religious piety was merely a cover. They received prison sentences ranging from four to 14 years.
Besides Rezaian, two other American citizens — Amir Hekmati of Michigan and Saeed Abedini of Idaho — are confirmed to be in Iranian prisons. Both were tried and convicted by the revolutionary courts. Abedini, a pastor who was charged with “threatening national security” by establishing house churches in Iran, got eight years. Hekmati, who was accused of designing video games disparaging the Middle East at the behest of the CIA, was sentenced to death, a penalty later overturned on appeal.
Another American, former FBI agent Robert Levinson, disappeared on Iran’s Kish Island in 2007.
Because the public is barred from most trials in the revolutionary courts, the little that is known about them comes from Iranians who have appeared there and later recounted their experiences.
Roxana Saberi, a former Miss North Dakota who is now a reporter for Al Jazeera America, was held for 100 days after being accused of espionage while working as a journalist in Iran. She was convicted but released after appeal, and she later wrote a book, “Between Two Worlds,” about her ordeal.
“I had a difficult time determining who was directing the show in which I felt I was merely a puppet,” she said in an e-mail.
“My trial, like Jason’s, was closed. The judge had made up his mind about me before the proceedings even began. The day before, he asked me: “How could you agree to spy for the U.S.? Don’t you care about the Islamic Republic?” I suspect the outcome was predetermined by higher powers. My eventual release likely was as well.”
Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, was running the program from Tehran when she was arrested in 2007 and accused of conspiring to overthrow the Islamic Republic through “propaganda against the system and espionage for foreigners.” After an international outcry, she was released on bail of $333,000 and the deed to her mother’s apartment. She fled the country, believing she would never get a fair trial.
“They are so suspicious of foreigners, especially dual citizens who work on sensitive issues, like a journalist or a teacher in academia,” she said. “The security forces are scared stiff of a velvet revolution. Why would they go after someone like Jason? Common sense would tell them a journalist has to collect information. But there is this sense of paranoia.”
Ghaemi, of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, said Rezaian’s main chance for acquittal has less to do with evidence than the politics of the nuclear-program negotiations.
If Rezaian is acquitted, “it would be based on a cost-benefit analysis that Jason’s release would show goodwill in the negotiations and also get them some international positive coverage as to the ‘fairness’ of their system,” he said.
Steven Mufson contributed to this report.