(photo credit: TWITTER)
At Branch 15 of the Tehran Revolutionary Court last Tuesday, prosecutors began the trial of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian. The charges: espionage, collaborating with hostile governments, and “propaganda against the establishment.”
Rezaian has been in custody for 315 days. Up until a few weeks ago, his family, friends and many supporters had no idea what he had been arrested for, because Iranian authorities had declined to say. Even when the news of the allegations finally came, it was provided sparingly by a lawyer whom Rezaian had not chosen and who has met with him only briefly.
The proceedings are off limits to the public. The charges have no basis in facts. After last week’s two-hour trial session, no indication was given when the court will reconvene on the case. If Rezaian is convicted on all counts he faces up to 20 years in jail. The judge, Abolghassem 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.
Rezaian has been held at the Evin Prison, which is notorious for the many executions and the abuse of political prisoners that take place there. His family says his health is failing and his morale is low. Rezaian’s wife, Yeganeh Salehi, who is an Iranian citizen and a reporter for The National, an English-language newspaper based in Abu Dhabi, was arrested along with Rezaian but released on bail. She faces prosecution for nothing more than reporting the truth.
The Committee to Protect Journalists’ year-end census counted 30 reporters in Iran’s jails, out of 221 worldwide.
Freedom House ranked Iran as “not free” with a score of 90 (100 is the worst score; Israel, the country Iran’s mullahs have vowed to “eliminate,” received a “free” ranking of 30).
As they attack free countries such as the US and Israel, Iranian officials deny their stifling of the press. During an interview in April with US television host Charlie Rose, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif asserted that Iran doesn’t “jail people for their opinions.”
Former political prisoners and others were quick to take to social media to dismiss Zarif’s claim as a “lie,” pointing out that dozens of political prisoners – including journalists, bloggers and activists – languish in Iranian prisons.
London-based Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari, who was jailed in Iran and put on trial amid the state’s brutal crackdown on the protests that followed the fraudulent 2009 reelection of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, tweeted that “many people are in prison in Iran just for being a journalist or an activist.”
Journalist Bahman Ahmadi Amouei, also jailed in the 2009 crackdown, challenged Zarif’s claim in a letter widely shared on Facebook.
Speaking as “a journalist who was jailed because of his opinions and articles written in the country’s newspapers,” Amouei left no doubt that he suffered in prison as a result.
“I was interrogated and subjected to mental and physical torture,” he wrote. “I testify that [President Hassan] Rohani’s government and his foreign minister are lying about this issue.”
Some likened the Iranian foreign minister to Pinocchio by circulating a photoshopped image of him with a long wooden nose. Many Iranian posted comments on Zarif’s Facebook page, expressing frustration over the claim made by a foreign minister who enjoys popular support for his handling of nuclear negotiations with world powers.
“We didn’t expect to hear a lie from you,” wrote one man before asking: “What is the crime of our most noble jailed journalists and political activists?” Another scolded Zarif: “By saying that ‘We don’t jail people for their opinions,’ you turn the hope of many Iranians who’ve become slightly hopeful over the presence of truthful and reasonable politicians in the country into despair.”
Tehran’s violent crackdown on basic freedoms means brave, idealistic people such as Rezaian suffer, and the muffling of free expression and criticism ultimately is self-defeating and destructive to Iranian society as a whole.
As Rezaian’s brother Ali noted, “Jason really wanted to demystify the place, to tell the truth about the people because he realized that there’s a big difference between what people saw on TV in the news and in the movies and real life there.”
Letting Jason go is not only the just thing to do, it is in Iran’s own interest.