Iranian-American journalist Jason Rezaian has been held in an Iranian prison since July 22, when he was arrested along with his wife, Yeganeh Salehi, and two others.
The reasons behind the arrests remain unclear, although Salehi, a correspondent for The National, an English-language newspaper based in the United Arabian Emirates, was released on bail in early October.
Rezaian, a Washington Post correspondent in Tehran since 2012, remains behind bars. His family, concerned for his health, has amplified its calls for his release.
The two others who were detained did not wish to be named and have been released.
Mohammed Javad Larijani, head of Iran’s Human Rights Council and top adviser to the country’s Supreme Leader, told Euronews earlier this month that Rezaian might be charged with being involved in “activities beyond journalism."
I’m concerned that some unconnected, external timeline would be associated with Jason’s detention…for them to tie his release to something he has nothing to do with is beyond cruel.
brother of detained journalist Jason Rezaian
However, in the same interview, Larijani said that Rezaian could be freed within a month, provided the prosecutor decides to drop the charges against him.
Larijani did not specify the nature of Rezaian's alleged objectionable activities.
Rezaian's brother, Ali Rezaian, a 43-year-old pharmaceutical technology consultant in the Bay Area, told Al Jazeera that to the best of his knowledge, his brother “has not been charged with any crime.”
“While there may be accusations against him, they’ve never told anybody what they are,” Ali said, “but there have been no formal charges in the legal judicial system.”
Ali said Jason has not yet been allowed to access an attorney in the course of defending himself, nor has he been allowed to speak to his family.
“We’ve had no direct contact with him, no letters, no telephone calls, no nothing,” said Ali, who said the quest to free his brother has been “all-consuming” for his entire family, who received updates on Jason's condition from sources Ali declined to specify.
“I’m certainly happy to hear that Mr. Larijani has mentioned the opportunity for the situation to be over without any charges being made, because we believe that that’s the right thing to do.”
Ali said that would eliminate the need for a pardon or acquittal of any potential charges, which can take months. Given that Jason is suffering from a number of health issues – a bad back, an eye infection and “severe depression” brought on by months spent in solitary confinement – expediency is crucial.
“Right now, we’ve become much more vocal about it because it’s gone on for so long – it’s not like other cases, there have been no specific accusations. It’s just been 111 days of interrogation,” Ali said, adding that the family had been more quiet in the past based on what they believed was the best strategy at the time.
Ali said it is distressing that his brother’s detention could be associated with any other domestic or international issue in Iran – notably the ongoing nuclear talks.
“I’m concerned that some unconnected, external timeline would be associated with Jason’s detention…for them to tie his release to something he has nothing to do with is beyond cruel,” he said.
Ali described his brother as a “meticulous” and “thoughtful journalist,” who “understood what the rules were”.
In an Aug. 4 opinion piece for the New York Times, Haleh Esfandiari, who herself had been jailed in Iran in 2006, wrote that Rezaian “must have seemed a tempting target, although in his reporting for The Washington Post, he wrote nothing particularly controversial.”
Esfandiari, like other Iran watchers and media analysts, links Jason’s arrest to internal political struggles in the country – forces entirely unconnected to Rezaian.
A human bargaining chip?
Sherif Mansour, Middle East and North Africa Coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said that this is a crucial time for the Rezaian family to raise awareness of his case.
“The government has said that they would release him – or resolve his case – within a month or less, and that is troubling in many ways,” said Mansour.
“This coincides with a timeframe that was given by the Iran [nuclear] negotiations, which has a Nov. 24 deadline. So it might suggest that the Iranian government is linking the two issues,” said Mansour.
“It’s very unfair that they’re trying to use him or implicate him in something he has no control of.”
Mansour said that in countries such as Iran, where about 35 journalists are currently behind bars, publicity can help secure a release.
“We, in our work, we’ve seen it inside and outside Iran that media attention and international outcry can absolutely help,” he said.
It shows that the Iranian government has not really changed course after the election of [Iranian President Hasan] Rouhani, Mansour added.
"The situation for journalists has not improved – on the contrary, it went south,” said Mansour, who added that arrests such as Rezaian’s show Iran’s “double-faced policy.”
“From one side they want to work with the International community and want to get a [nuclear] deal, and they want engagement in Bahrain and Syria, but they continue to deny engagement and debate with citizens inside [Iran] and the journalist community,” he said.
“There’s still an opportunity, if Rouhani is committed, to fulfill his election campaign promises and to reverse the crackdown on journalists that started five years ago by allowing a press syndicate to operate, by allowing the release of a lot of the journalists and ensuring that security is not censoring or interfering with a lot of the news coverage,” said Mansour.
Rights as collateral damage
Reza Marashi, research director of the National Iranian American Council, said that Rezaian’s case aside, the human rights situation might get worse in Iran before they get better.
“I think in 2013, Rouhani won because for the first time, the right wing was more divided than the left – and this is still generally the case in Iran,” said Marashi.
“The goal of the moderates and left-wing groups is to retake the [Iranian Parliament] in 2016, and they believe that a nuclear deal is key to this – and that’s why they’ve put all their eggs in this basket.”
The right-wing groups, said Marashi, aim to divide the coalition that Rouhani has built – something they hope to achieve through “social issues and through geopolitical issues.”
So while they can’t openly get in the way of nuclear talks – which is how Rouhani aims to build political capital - they focus on social issues and human rights crackdowns.
Should a nuclear deal be reached, Marashi said, there will be more clampdowns on rights, but in the long run, he does believe the situation will improve.
“I believe that in the event that a deal is done, there will be a spike in human rights abuses for anywhere between three to nine months after a deal, because there will be enough people within the system – call them hardliners or what you will – who will want to demonstrate that an opening to the international community does not mean an opening domestically,” said Marashi.
“So in order to not project weakness, they’re going to clamp down at home as they open up to the world, we need to be vigilant and call them out on it.”