Iran media details spy case against US reporter. Sign of a trial soon?

Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian may not be released – regardless of the legal timeline – before a June 30 deadline is reached for a final nuclear deal, say analysts.

Vahid Salemi/AP/File
An Iranian court on Tuesday held the first hearing in the closed trial of Jason Rezaian, who has been detained for more than 10 months.

Iran’s conservative media, apparently drawing from interrogation transcripts and e-mails, is painting the broadest picture yet of espionage charges against Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post reporter who has spent nearly nine months imprisoned in Iran

The case has been raised repeatedly on the sidelines of international negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, and a trial date may soon be set, according to Iranian officials and a report by the Fars News Agency, which is closely linked to the Revolutionary Guard whose intelligence arm detained Mr. Rezaian.

The family of Mr. Rezaian, a dual US-Iranian citizen, has pushed for a trial date as a possible means to speed his release. His approved lawyer, who was recently allowed a cursory visit and is working through the voluminous case file, has called for the trial to start swiftly.

The Iranian media reports feed into the view that Rezaian is a pawn in a power struggle between Iran's president, Hassan Rouhani, and hardliners who oppose a nuclear deal and his outreach to the West. Some analysts say Rezaian may not be released – regardless of the legal timeline – ahead of a June 30 deadline for a final nuclear accord.

The court date “will be decided after the lawyers [sic] finish studying,” Judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Mohseni-Ejei said Monday. “The case has many pages, and I have asked the judge to demand the lawyers spend more time [to] finish sooner.”

What exactly is in those pages is unclear. On Sunday, Fars News painted Rezaian as part of a web of journalists and opposition figures bent on “acting against the national security” of Iran.

Among “Jason’s tactics,” the Fars article alleged, was that he “believed in penetration” of Iran’s Islamic system from inside the country, while others close to him pushed for “confrontation” over human rights and other issues.

“Selling Iran’s economic and industrial information at the time of sanctions is like selling food to the enemy at a time of war,” it said, without giving specifics. 

The San Francisco native has already spent twice as much time in custody as any Western journalist in Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution. The Rezaian family categorically denies the espionage charges.

'Kafkaesque restrictions'

The Washington Post calls the charges “absurd,” and Tuesday accused Iran of imposing “kafkaesque restrictions” by limiting Rezaian’s access to a single approved lawyer.

The reporter’s mother, Mary Breme Rezaian, says her knowledge of how Iran treats political prisoners meant the Fars report did not shock her. “In everyone else’s case, there has been an evidence dump before the trial, so this is just another step in the process,” she says. “They are certainly taking their sweet time.”

Mrs. Rezaian, who lives in Istanbul, was able to visit her son twice in Evin prison during a three-week trip to Iran in December and January. Her son's lawyer, Leila Ashan, has had a single short visit with Jason Rezaian weeks ago, the Post reported. The Associated Press quoted the lawyer saying he had asked her to “provide a strong defense.”

The case file is “huge” but Ms. Ashan is working alone, says Mrs. Rezaian. “Anyone else we came up with has been batted away.”

In a statement reported by the Post, Jason's brother Ali said: “If this is truly Iran’s justification for Jason’s nine months of detention, all Iranians regardless of their country or residence or political affiliation should be embarrassed by this continued injustice.”

Translation of interrogation?

The Fars article begins by raising the question of why Rezaian’s July 22 arrest with his journalist wife and two others caused “mayhem” in the Western media. That reaction “made [us] question who he is and also why in the nuclear negotiations [our US] counterpart has asked for his freedom?” Rezaian’s wife has since been released on bail and the two others were freed.

The article is written in a tone and style as if translated from English into Farsi, and appears to be partly drawn from interrogation transcripts and e-mails.

It claims that Rezaian had close contacts with half a dozen Iranian journalists, activists, and a prominent think tank analyst living in exile in the US, stretching back to 2006. Some of those individuals had connections to the CIA, as well as “horrifying radical thoughts” and “a bad reputation,” it alleges. Two attended the funeral of Rezaian’s father in 2011.

The Fars author appears to have little familiarity with US organizations such as the National Iranian American Council, whose acronym NIAC it spells “NIKE.”

US calls for his release

President Barack Obama, in a statement March 20 on the eve of the Persian New Year, called for the release of Rezaian and of two other Americans detained and a third who is missing. US officials say they bring up Rezaian’s case at every round of nuclear talks, during bilateral US-Iran meetings.

Last November, Iranian officials dangled the possibility that Rezaian would be released within weeks – a timeline that coincided with a late November deadline for a nuclear deal, that was ultimately extended by six months.

Then in January, the investigation was declared over and the case handed to the Revolutionary Court – another event that should have advanced the process, and which raised hopes with Rezaian’s family. But still no trial date has been set.  

“In the pit of my stomach, I thought: ‘Let us pray that this does not extend to the outer limits of the nuclear talks, because he has nothing to do with all of that,’" says Ms. Rezaian. 

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