Iranian authorities are charging The Washington Post’s Tehran bureau chief, Jason Rezaian, with espionage and three other serious crimes, including “collaborating with hostile governments” and “propaganda against the establishment,” according to his attorney in Tehran.
Providing the first description of the precise charges against Rezaian since his arrest nine months ago, the lawyer said that an indictment alleges that Rezaian gathered information “about internal and foreign policy” and provided it to “individuals with hostile intent.”
The statement, issued from Tehran by Rezaian’s attorney, Leila Ahsan, was provided to The Post by the family of the imprisoned reporter.
Rezaian also is accused of collecting classified information, said Ahsan, who is believed to be the only person outside the judiciary to have read the indictment. The indictment says he wrote to President Obama, in an example of his alleged contact with a “hostile government.”
The charges carry a maximum sentence of 10 to 20 years in prison.
The Revolutionary Court, which handles national security cases, has not officially divulged the charges against Rezaian. They are known only by the brief description given by Ahsan after she met Rezaian on Monday for 90 minutes in the presence of an official interpreter.
It was the first time Rezaian has been allowed to consult with a lawyer since his arrest on July 22. He has been incarcerated in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison, where political prisoners are held and interrogated.
“All of the items and accusations are the ones that I mentioned and I cannot divulge details because the trial has not yet begun,” Ahsan said in her statement, citing the secret nature of the investigation.
Ahsan said that the case file presents no evidence to justify the accusations against Rezaian and that the charges are related to his journalistic pursuit of stories about Iran.
She added that her client “has never had any direct or indirect access to classified information to share with anyone.”
The White House and the State Department criticized Iran’s handling of the case.
“If the reports are true, these charges are absurd, should be immediately dismissed and Jason should be freed immediately, so that he can return home to his family,” said White House press secretary Josh Earnest.
When asked why the administration has not required the release of Rezaian and two other Americans held in Iranian prisons as a condition for a nuclear agreement with Iran, Earnest replied that efforts to build support for a deal are “extremely complicated.”
Martin Baron, The Post’s executive editor, described the charges against Rezaian as “scurrilous.”
“It is absurd and despicable to assert, as Iran’s judiciary is now claiming, that Jason’s work first as a freelance reporter and then as The Post’s Tehran correspondent amounted to espionage or otherwise posed any threat to Iranian national security,” Baron said in a statement.
Baron made an open plea for the Iranian judiciary and the judge in the case to exonerate Rezaian and his wife, Yeganeh Salehi, a journalist who was arrested with her husband and eventually released on bail.
“The manufactured charges against Jason and Yegi that Iran’s courts are now putting forth represent propaganda, not justice,” Baron said. “The world will be watching; any just outcome to this tragic charade can result only in Jason and Yegi’s exoneration and immediate release.”
The judge in the case, Abolghassem Salavati, has previously drawn international condemnation for his harsh sentences. The Revolutionary Court has not set a trial date for Rezaian’s case. His family has said they believe it may be soon.
“A Revolutionary Court branch reviewing the case is dealing with many other cases, and will deal with this case when its turn comes,” Gholam Hossein Esmaili, the head of Tehran province’s justice department and a former chief of Evin Prison, told reporters, according to Iran’s official Islamic Republic News Agency. “It will then issue an appropriate verdict at a proper time.”
Ali Rezaian expressed confidence in his brother’s innocence.
“The more I hear about the evidence they are basing their charges on, the less I can believe that they have held Jason for nine months, or that he was detained at all,” he said Monday. “There’s no evidence that he had or tried to gain access to confidential or classified information. There’s no evidence that he did anything to injure the Iranian government in any way. I guess in a word it would be that it’s tragic that his and Yegi’s lives have been turned upside down.”
Several Iranian news organizations have published lengthy articles in the past week about the charges against Rezaian, who is 39 and holds both Iranian and U.S. passports. Last weekend, the semiofficial Fars News Agency said he is suspected of passing on economic and industrial information, which it characterized as an act of espionage at a time when international sanctions have caused prices to rise for Iranian consumers.
His access to legal counsel has been limited. Several lawyers contacted by Rezaian’s family declined to take the case. Ahsan was hired only recently, and until Monday she had had only an introductory meeting with him in a judge’s chambers. She told Rezaian’s family that their meeting Monday is the only one that will be permitted before his trial.
In her statement, Ahsan said the court has rejected her arguments that he should be released on bail to prepare for his trial.
“Considering that the investigation has ended, I believe there is no legal precedent for extending Jason’s detention,” she said.
Baron noted that the judge assigned to hear and render a verdict in Rezaian’s case has been accused of violating human rights.
“It is important to note that the judge, Abolghassem Salavati, did not permit Jason to choose his own counsel, rejecting several initial choices,” Baron said. “We continue to believe that Jason’s defense team should be permitted to grow to include additional lawyers of his choosing.
“We call on Judge Salavati and the Iranian judiciary to depart from past practice and instead demonstrate to the world that they can indeed render a fair and impartial judgment in the Iranian system.”
In a hint of the defense strategy, Ahsan said that Iran and the United States, despite their deep differences dating to American support for the shah before the Iranian revolution that deposed him, have never attacked one another, so under international law they are not considered “hostile” nations. That undercuts the charges of “collaborating” with hostile governments and writing to Obama, she said.
During nuclear talks with Iran, Secretary of State John F. Kerry has repeatedly mentioned Rezaian, along with two other Americans of Iranian descent imprisoned there — Amir Hekmati, a Marine veteran from Flint, Mich., sentenced to 10 years for aiding a “hostile country” — a reference to the United States — and Saeed Abedini, a pastor from Boise, Idaho, sentenced to eight years on national security charges for establishing churches in Iran.
Kerry also has asked for help locating Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent who disappeared during a trip to Iran in 2007. The United States has never formally linked any of their cases to the negotiations, however.
Ahsan made a passing reference to the ongoing talks resuming this week.
“Even though legal affairs are outside the bounds of politics, I hope the nuclear talks and its developments will have a positive effect on a speedy release of my client,” she said.
David Nakamura contributed to this report.