Iran hints at early release for detained Washington Post reporter

Jason Rezaian, a dual US-Iranian citizen, was arrested in July and has been held incommunicado in Tehran. Some believe his detention is part of a political war between supporters and opponents of President Rouhani.

Vahid Salemi/AP/File
Jason Rezaian, an Iranian-American correspondent for the Washington Post smiles as he attends a presidential campaign of President Hassan Rouhani in Tehran, Iran, in April 2013. Mr. Rezaian is jailed without charge in Iran for months, and his family is urging authorities in Tehran to release him.

The family of imprisoned Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian says his health is deteriorating due to “neglect” after 107 days in custody, even as a top Iranian official suggests that he may be free within weeks.

Until now, little news has emerged about Mr. Rezaian – a dual American-Iranian citizen – since his arrest at home in Tehran on July 22 with his wife, Iranian journalist Yeganeh Salehi, and two others Iranian-Americans.

Only Rezaian remains in custody; his wife was released on bail a month ago. His case is a point of friction frequently raised by US officials calling for his release while conducting nuclear talks with Iran that face a Nov. 24 deadline.

Yet Mohammad Javad Larijani, the head of Iran’s High Council for Human Rights, said in Geneva that Rezaian would likely be freed or pardoned in “less than a month.”

Inside Iran, Rezaian’s arrest is widely seen as a political move by hardline opponents of President Hassan Rouhani aimed at undermining both the president’s domestic agenda – where he has promised to ease social restrictions in Iran – and his ability to find a new accommodation with the West and seal a nuclear deal.

Seen in that context, whether Rezaian is released without charge, or undergoes a lengthy court process, will be one indication of the current power balance in Iran.

“Either he will be totally discharged or it will go [to] the court and the court will make a final decision,” Mr. Larijani told Euronews in an interview that aired today. If the court does not drop the security charges and Rezaian is indicted, “then the second line, the pardon line, will start,” he said.

Larijani is part of a powerful family troika in Iran: one brother is the speaker of parliament; another the judiciary chief. Larijani said Iranian security officials had charged Rezaian with involvement in “activities beyond journalism” that “breaches the security of the state.”

No specific charges have been made public; Rezaian’s family and the Post reject the accusations. Iranian law requires a detainee to be either charged or released within 90 days, a deadline that passed for Rezaian with no apparent action. He has been a correspondent in Tehran for The Washington Post since 2012 and is a native of California.

Rezaian’s family say his health, which had stabilized despite a dramatic loss of weight a month ago, when his wife was released, has in recent weeks deteriorated.

“We are at a loss as to why they still have him, why he hasn’t been able to be treated, and why they just don’t let him go,” says Rezaian’s brother Ali, speaking in an interview from New York.

“Based on what we’ve heard, they’ve monitored his blood pressure – which was a concern,” said Ali Rezaian. “It seems that the [health] things that are going on now are more a result of neglect, rather than active mistreatment.”

Iranian record on press freedom

Larijani hinted days ago that there had been behind-the-scenes movement, and that his council had called for a review of Rezaian’s case. “As the court procedure is elaborate, it takes time. So the prosecutor was kind enough to take a second review, so we hope charges will be dropped,” Larijani told The New York Times.

In August, a United Nations human rights report described a “general repression of freedom of expression” in Iran, and counted 35 journalists in detention, putting Iran high in world rankings. Larijani was in Geneva to defend Iran’s record; he and other officials – who reject the UN’s human rights reporting – claim that no one in Iran is detained for being a journalist. Iran has also seen a rise in executions, mostly for drugs offenses, since Rouhani was elected in June 2013.

Larijani’s comments about Rezaian’s case “gave us some hope that the right people are seeing what’s going on, and they’re realizing there really is nothing going on there, that Jason really is innocent here and that he should be released,” says Ali Rezaian.

“The fact that they are talking more about it, and the fact they are talking publicly – the direction is correct. A month ago, we were hearing: ‘We’re investigating.’ Now we’re hearing there is a chance he can be released without any charges,” he adds.

Allegations of espionage

Within two weeks of Rezaian’s arrest, conservative media in Tehran reported a list of accusations. Tasnim News Agency claimed that “numerous and reliable evidence exists of spying” by Rezaian – but did not describe a single piece of that “evidence” – and quoted a letter from the “Basij [Volunteer] Organization of Lawyers” that rehashed Iran’s espionage law and called for the “maximum punishment.”

The hardline Vatan-e Emrooz newspaper cited “existing evidence in cyberspace” to claim Rezaian and the others were arrested for directing a “Happy” video in Iran and linked Rezaian’s Twitter feed to a number of media and activist groups in Washington and London.

A week later, the reformist Saham News website reported that Revolutionary Guard intelligence services were arresting people close to Rouhani in an attempt to subvert his foreign policy. The Guard “has been trying to make [Rezaian] perform TV confessions under the charges of espionage,” and link the “enemy’s spy” to a Rouhani relative in the president’s communications office, the website claimed.

“He always followed the rules,” says Ali Rezaian. “He was really, really clear about wanting to stay within the rules, the boundaries that were there, because that’s what he had signed up to do.”

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