A Reporter Goes on Trial in Tehran

The trial of Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian, on vague charges including espionage, began in Iran on Tuesday.

Jason Rezaian (Zoeann Murphy / The Washington Post)

On Tuesday, the trial of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, who has been imprisoned for nearly 10 months in Iran on vaguely defined charges, started in Tehran.

What’s Known About Rezaian’s Case

According to Iran’s official news agency IRNA, Rezaian is accused of committing "espionage for the hostile government of the United States" and spreading anti-Iranian propaganda. Those charges had not been made public until last month, after Rezaian had already spent nine months in prison.

The 39-year-old correspondent was detained in late July of last year, along with his wife and two photojournalists. The other three were later released, but Rezaian has remained in Evin Prison, one of the country’s most notoriously inhumane facilities, and reportedly kept in isolation and denied medical treatment.

Thomas Erdbrink of The New York Times detailed the evidence against Rezaian, none of which seems to reflect any real crime:

The Iranian government is presenting two pieces of evidence of espionage, Mr. Rezaian’s brother, Ali Rezaian, said: an American visa application for Yeganeh Salehi, Jason Rezaian’s wife, an Iranian citizen and a journalist, and a form letter sent by Mr. Rezaian to Barack Obama’s 2008 White House transition team offering help to improve relations between Iran and the United States.

Rezaian, who grew up in California and holds dual American-Iranian citizenship, was only allowed to meet with his lawyer once—she reportedly found out the date of the trial through Iranian media. If convicted, Rezaian could face up to 20 years in prison.

The Closed-Door Trial

Tuesday’s proceedings, which reportedly lasted just about two hours, were conducted in private—a move Washington Post executive editor Martin Baron said in a statement would close the trial from “the scrutiny it fully deserves,” and that Rezaian’s brother Ali called “unconscionable.” Even Rezaian’s family has been barred from attending. American officials have called the charges against Rezaian “absurd.”

But one potentially telling detail about the otherwise mysterious proceedings is the judge assigned to the case. “The presiding judge, Abolghassem Salavati, is known for handing down harsh sentences and is accused by human rights groups of cracking down on journalists and activists,” the BBC reported. “He has been dubbed the ‘judge of death’ for imposing several death sentences after the 2009 post-election opposition protests.” In 2011, Salavati was placed on a European Union blacklist for human-rights abuses, and last year, he was also accused of leading a crackdown on political activists and journalists within the country.

“There is no justice in this system, not an ounce of it, and yet the fate of a good, innocent man hangs in the balance,” Baron wrote in his statement. “Iran is making a statement about its values in its disgraceful treatment of our colleague, and it can only horrify the world community.”

How the Trial Impacts Nuclear Negotiations

As the United States and Iran continue to pursue a nuclear deal, some have suggested that Iran could be using Rezaian as a bargaining chip to enhance its position in the negotiations.

On Friday, The Washington Post’s editorial board posited that Rezaian might actually represent “a pawn in Iran’s internal power struggles or in the leadership’s attempt to show that a prospective nuclear accord will not alter its enmity toward the United States, or perhaps both.”

Throughout the nuclear talks, U.S. officials have frequently brought up Rezaian’s case as well as those of other American citizens currently being held in Iran. A number of Republican lawmakers have issued statements calling for the release of Rezaian as a precondition for a nuclear deal with Iran.