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Press Freedom

Nuclear Deal Could Offer Glimmer of Hope for Jailed Journalist in Iran

Iranian-American Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post's Tehran Bureau Chief, has been detained in Iran since July 22, 2014. Credit:

UNITED NATIONS, Aug 14 2015 (IPS) - As Iranian-American journalist Jason Rezaian awaits his verdict, human rights advocates and press freedom groups continue to condemn the trial and call for his immediate release.

It has been over a year since the Washington Post’s Tehran Bureau Chief, Jason Rezaian, was jailed on charges including espionage for the United States and anti-Iranian propaganda. On Monday, Rezaian spoke in his own defence at a final closed-door hearing. His verdict is expected to be announced next week.

“Mr. Rezaian’s case exemplifies the challenges facing journalists in Iran. At least 40 journalists are currently detained in the country not including at least 12 Facebook and social media activists who were either recently arrested or sentenced." -- Special Rapporteur Ahmed Shaheed

Following a midnight raid on July 22, 2014, Rezaian and his Iranian wife, Yeganeh Salehi, a journalist for the Abu Dhabi newspaper The National, were detained along with two American photojournalists. Unlike his wife and the two journalists, who were released after a short time, Rezaian remained in custody at Tehran’s Evin Prison where he was “subjected to months of interrogation, isolation, and threats”, his brother Ali Rezaian told The Atlantic.

In a previous article on Jason Rezaian’s incarceration, Ali Rezaian told IPS about his brother’s endeavour to show his readers a different side of Iran and encourage people to visit the country.

Indeed, Jason Rezaian, who is also a former IPS correspondent for Iran, used to move beyond the typical coverage of the most critical topics such as the Iranian nuclear programme, focusing instead on social and cultural issues. This is why his detention was all the more met with astonishment and dismay.

Iranian-American academic Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Programme at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, who was herself detained by Iranian security authorities in 2007, told IPS: “I truly cannot understand why they went after Rezaian because he avoided critical issues and kept to social issues. But as a foreign journalist in Iran, he must have been under surveillance and they were following him.

“When the judiciary decided to arrest him, it was a way for hardliners to do harm to the government who was negotiating the Iranian nuclear deal. So my understanding is that Jason’s detention is due to domestic issues rather than to Jason having done something outrageous.”

In a recent New York Times article, Esfandiari considered Rezaian’s detention in the context of negotiations between the Iranian government and the P5+1 (the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany) on the Iranian nuclear programme “a ploy to weaken Rouhani”.

A moderate reformer, President Hassan Rouhani has sought to improve American-Iranian relations and facilitate the reintegration of Iran into the international community, she explained. However, since Rouhani’s election, hardliners including Iran’s intelligence services, the judiciary and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps have been critical of Rouhani’s reforms and – regarding the nuclear programme – have been pushing for confrontation with Western governments instead of concessions, she added.

Esfandiari told IPS: “The detention of Rezaian probably came as much of a surprise to Rouhani and his cabinet members as to all of us and I’m sure that behind the scenes, his government tries to pressure the judiciary to release Rezaian.”

The Washington Post editorial board also evoked the context of the nuclear negotiations as a major reason for Rezaian’s custody, but rather considers Rezaian a means of pressure for the regime: “It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that he is being used as a human pawn in the regime’s attempt to gain leverage in the negotiations.”

Hopes have been expressed that the Iran nuclear deal could prove helpful in achieving Rezaian’s release as Iran’s image abroad would be even more at stake and the supposed reasons for Rezaian’s arrest no longer relevant.

Yet, despite the international accord on Iran’s nuclear programme achieved last month and currently awaiting approval by the U.S. Congress, Rezaian has remained in prison.

All eyes are now on the verdict which might be delivered as early as next week, according to Rezaian’s lawyer Leila Ahsan. Iranian law provides for verdicts to be announced within one week of the last hearing. However, no official date for the verdict has been released yet.

Esfandiari mentioned three possible outcomes. The luckiest scenario would be for Jason Rezaian to get sentenced to time served, meaning he will be freed immediately either on bail or on his own recognizance. Other possibilities involve a sentence of 15 or 16 months, meaning two additional months in prison or, in the worst case, a much longer sentence which he will be able to appeal.

Human rights advocates and press freedom groups condemn not only the unjustified and politically motivated incarceration itself but also the entire conduct of the trial and especially the delays in the judicial proceedings.

Sherif Mansour, MENA Programme Coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), told IPS, “According to Iranian law, no person may be detained at an Iranian prison for more than a year, unless charged with murder. This means Rezaian should have been released by July 22, 2015. This did not happen. We continue to condemn the trial and call for Rezaian’s unconditional release.”

Last month, The Washington Post formally appealed to the U.N. for urgent action in the Rezaian case by filing a petition with the U.N. Human Rights Council’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions. The petition denounces the unlawful trial, including Rezaian’s solitary confinement, strenuous interrogations and insufficient medical treatment.

Earlier this year, Ahmed Shaheed, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Iran, along with other high-profile human rights experts, also expressed serious concerns about the trial.

“In May… [we] recalled that Mr. Rezaian’s trial on charges of ‘espionage, collaboration with hostile governments, gathering classified information and disseminating propaganda against the Islamic Republic’ began behind closed doors following his detainment for nearly 10 months without formal charges, and following a number of months in solitary confinement.”

“Concerns, therefore, about fair trial standards in this case persist, and I continue to hope that the arbitrary nature of Mr. Rezaian’s detention and charges will be confirmed by the court,” Shaheed told IPS.

According to Shaheed, the human rights situation in Iran, especially regarding freedom of expression, continues to be worrisome.

“Mr. Rezaian’s case exemplifies the challenges facing journalists in Iran. At least 40 journalists are currently detained in the country not including at least 12 Facebook and social media activists who were either recently arrested or sentenced.

“Journalists, writers, netizens, and human rights defenders continued to be interrogated and arrested by government agencies during the first half of 2015, and the Judiciary reportedly continues to impose heavy prison sentences on individuals for the legitimate exercise of expression. Thirty of those currently detained are charged with ‘propaganda against the system,’ 25 with ‘insulting’ either a political leader or religious concept, and 12 are charged with harming ‘national security’,” he said.

“The human rights situation in Iran remains quite concerning. Despite small steps forward in some areas of concern, the fundamental issues repeatedly raised by the international human rights mechanisms for the past three decades persist. This includes issues with the independence of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s judiciary and its legal community.”

“Of particular alarm is the surge in executions, which amounted to 694 hangings as of early last months, a rate unseen in 25 years. The majority of these executions were for offense not considered capital crimes under international human rights laws.”

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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