A Warning in Iran’s Closed-Door Trial of Reporter Jason Rezaian
"The ministry, aided by a pliant judiciary, may be trying to make an example of Mr. Rezaian. His experience serves as a warning to other Iranians or dual nationals who work for foreign news agencies in Iran or universities and think tanks abroad. The message? Such Iranians should not feel free, or safe, to travel between Iran and the U.S. or Europe," writes Haleh Esfandiari
The trial of Jason Rezaian opened Tuesday, 10 months after the Iranian-American Washington Post correspondent was arrested, and adjourned without indication of when proceedings might continue. Mr. Rezaian, who has been held in Evin Prison since last summer, is accused of espionage and cooperating with a foreign government.
Here are a few things to keep in mind about his trial:
The prosecution has had months to marshal its case. But Mr. Rezaian has been allowed only one meeting with his lawyer. The trial is closed to the media and to the public. Mary Rezaian, the defendant’s mother, was not admitted to the courtroom Tuesday. Nor was his wife, Yeganeh Salehi, a journalist for the National newspaper in Abu Dhabi, was in court with him. Ms. Salehi was arrested with her husband last July; she was freed on bail in October but also faces charges–and she has been warned not to discuss the case with the media.
So far as the Rezaian family has been able to learn from Jason’s lawyer, Leila Ahsan, the evidence is flimsy. This might be one reason the trial is being conducted out of public view.
The judge, Abolghassem Salavati, is notorious for handing down harsh sentences. In 2009, he presided over the televised show trial of participants in the mass protests against what many Iranians regarded as rigged presidential elections; he also oversaw the trial of leaders of the reformist Green Movement, many of whom were once high-ranking government officials. In 2011, the European Union included him among Iranians blacklisted in relation to human rights violations.
The judiciary and Intelligence Ministry have been mostly silent about this case but continue to pursue it in the face of adverse international publicity. But then, Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and its judiciary have long been obsessed with the idea that dual nationals working as journalists, political analysts, and academics are vehicles for foreign intrigue and plots to destabilize the Iranian government. Like the KGB in the former Soviet Union, the Intelligence Ministry must justify its enormous budget and its intrusion into the lives of ordinary citizens; it victimizes reporters to make its case.
The ministry, aided by a pliant judiciary, may be trying to make an example of Mr. Rezaian. His experience serves as a warning to other Iranians or dual nationals who work for foreign news agencies in Iran or universities and think tanks abroad. The message? Such Iranians should not feel free, or safe, to travel between Iran and the U.S. or Europe.
Iran’s Intelligence Ministry and judiciary want to make clear that they do not answer to President Hasan Rouhani and his government or share his foreign policy intentions. Mr. Rouhani may desire relations between Iran and the West. He may wish to weaken, or demolish, suspicion between Iran and the West. But some Iranian officials have other ideas.
It is hard to think of a political trial in the Islamic Republic that has resulted in a finding of innocence, but if past political trials are any indication, several outcomes are possible. Jason Rezaian may be sentenced to a long prison term that will be upheld on appeal. Precedents for such a result are plentiful, including the closed trial and long sentences imposed in Shiraz in 2000 on 13 Jews charged with of “espionage and illegal aid to Iran’s enemy.” The Post journalist may receive a prison sentence that is later thrown out on appeal, as happened to Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi in 2009. The court could impose a sentence equivalent to time already served, which would allow Mr. Rezaian to be set free. A finding of guilt and a pardon from Iran’s supreme leader are also options, though pardons in political cases have been extremely rare.
Iran’s Revolutionary Courts operate in darkness, which means anything is possible.
The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.
This article was originally published in The Wall Street Journal.
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