Jason Rezaian tells story of captivity in Iran

After his July 2014 arrest in Tehran, Rezaian became an international symbol of Iranian brutality.
Wednesday 09/01/2019
Former Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian arrives at U.S. District Court for a hearing, on January 8, 2018 in Washington, DC.  (AFP)
Former Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian arrives at U.S. District Court for a hearing, on January 8, 2018 in Washington, DC. (AFP)

WASHINGTON - A Washington Post reporter, imprisoned in Iran for a year-and-a-half, testified that he was threatened repeatedly with execution unless he confessed to bogus charges and was kept in solitary confinement for 49 days, causing him to hallucinate and lose touch with reality.

Jason Rezaian, the Post’s former Tehran correspondent, told the story of his arrest and captivity January 9 as part of his effort to collect millions of dollars in damages from the Iranian government.

After his July 2014 arrest in Tehran, Rezaian became an international symbol of Iranian brutality until his release in January 2016 as part of a US-Iran prisoner swap while the Iran nuclear accord was being implemented.

Breaking a self-imposed public silence, Rezaian sat calmly in a Washington courtroom and under gentle questioning from his lawyer told how he and his Iranian wife were accosted by three Iranian security agents one evening as they entered an elevator in their apartment building to go to a party. The agents, members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), forced the couple into their apartment, separated them and ransacked their apartment.

“They did it to make a point -- to show they could,” Rezaian said as his wife, Yeganeh Salehi, sat in the front row of the courtroom and occasionally wiped away tears. Salehi, who also is a journalist, was held for 72 days before being released.

Blindfolded and driven to Evin Prison in Tehran, the couple was put into solitary confinement and interrogated. Rezaian said his cell was approximately two-and-a-half metres long and 1 metre wide, with only two “rough blankets,” an insect-infested sink and a small hole in the ground for a toilet.

Isolated and left with “absolutely nothing” to do, Rezaian said he “quickly became disjointed from reality” as his mood descended from hysteria and confusion to helplessness. Rezaian lost nearly 20 kilograms in weight and developed infections.

The IRGC accused Rezaian, an Iran-accredited journalist and a dual US-Iranian citizen, of espionage. During daily interrogations, guards threatened to execute him, cut off his limbs and kill his wife “if I didn’t answer questions in certain ways,” Rezaian testified. He said he gave multiple forced confessions on tape, reasoning they were the only way he could be released.

Rezaian, 42, said he assumed he was targeted because he was a high-profile journalist and would be “potential leverage” in Tehran’s efforts to secure the release of Iranians held in the United States. “I was told, ‘You will be released when America gives us what we want,’” Rezaian said. He was released in exchange for seven Iranians whom the United States accused of violating US sanctions.

Rezaian’s trial in Iran was presided over by a judge who vowed to sentence him to death. The “evidence” of Rezaian’s espionage consisted of articles he wrote for the Post that purportedly showed he was illegally collecting and disseminating information about Iran. “They were essentially accusing me of being a journalist,” Rezaian said. “It was ludicrous.”

Rezaian testified January 8 in a largely empty courtroom as part of a lawsuit that he, his brother Ali Rezaian and his mother, Mary Rezaian, brought against Iran and the IRGC. The family’s lawyer, David Bowker, asked the judge to hold Iran liable and to award the Rezaians $44 million for suffering and economic loss and $1 billion in punitive damages “to deter Iran” from falsely imprisoning and torturing people.

Acknowledging that Iran would not pay anything, Bowker said the Rezaians could try to seize Iranian assets in the United States and might collect a few million dollars from a US government fund that compensates victims of state-sponsored terrorism. “There’s a certain amount of symbolism here,” Bowker said.

Rezaian was born in California to an American mother and an Iranian father. After his release, he studied at Harvard University for a year and now works as an editor at the Washington Post, which had hired him as its Tehran correspondent in 2012. Rezaian had spent three years previously as a freelance writer in Iran.

He has not publicly discussed or published anything about his experience. His memoir, "Prisoner," is to be released January 22.

The judge will decide whether to award the Rezaians damages in the coming months.