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Iran's 'Judge of Death' Presides Over Washington Post Reporter's Trial

More than 300 days after his arrest, the trial of American-Iranian journalist Jason Rezaian finally started on Tuesday in a closed-door court session in Tehran.
May 26, 2015, 4:15pm
EPA/STR

More than 300 days after his arrest, the trial of American-Iranian journalist Jason Rezaian finally started on Tuesday in a closed-door court session in Tehran.

The Washington Post Bureau Chief is accused by the Iranian authorities of espionage, passing on information to hostile governments, and propaganda against the establishment.  Rezaian is being tried alongside his wife, Yeganeh Salehi, an Iranian citizen and journalist for The National, and an unnamed freelance photojournalist. All three were detained at the same time but only Rezaian was not granted bail.

In a statement released Monday, Washington Post Executive Editor Martin Baron called the charges against Rezaian "absurd" and "shameful" and said there was "not an ounce" of justice in the Iranian court system. He also noted that the paper's efforts to obtain a visa for a senior editor to travel to Tehran for the trial have gone "unanswered" by the country's authorities.

Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth condemned the decision to hold the trial in a closed court. "If Iran had a case against Jason Rezaian, it would try him in public. It doesn't and won't," he wrote a post on Twitter.

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For the last 10 months Rezaian has been kept in the notoriously harsh Evin Prison, which is used to hold activists and other political prisoners. Human rights organizations and former inmates say torture in the jail is "routine" and "widespread."

Iranian-Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kezemi was killed in 2003 while being held in Evin prison after she was accused of being a spy while covering protests. The authorities initially claimed she suffered a stroke but later admitted she was beaten. A doctor who examined Kezemi said she had been tortured and brutally raped.

Rezaian's family and employers say that during his detention he has spent periods of time in isolation, been denied medical treatment for his high blood pressure, and subjected to harsh interrogations.

Media in Iran is tightly censored by the state and the authorities routinely detain, imprison, and intimidate journalists deemed as critical of the regime. In 2014 Reporters Without Borders ranked Iran 173rd out of 180 countries on the world press freedom index. Around 30 journalists are currently being detained by the Iranian authorities; the second highest number in the world.

Reuters was briefly banned from the country In 2012 for publishing a report on the martial arts training of Iranian women, and local media outlets are frequently censored and shut down. In April this year the courts shut down Zanan-e Emrouz, a woman's magazine, after it ran an article discussing cohabitation.

According to Freedom House the Iranian government is one of the most sophisticated and pervasive censors of online content in the world and uses advanced technology to block numerous websites, including social-media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.

Reizaian's trial is taking place in Tehran's Revolutionary Court Branch 15, which deals with security cases and has a reputation for handing down harsh sentences, including the death penalty.

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Iranian authorities have provided very little evidence against the American-born, 39-year-old journalist, and the hearing is being presided over by the hardline judge, Abolghassem Salavati, who last year sentenced a man to death for heretical activities that included an interpretation of Jonah and the wale as a symbolic tale in the Qur'an.

Salavati, who is known as "the judge of death," is one of around six Iranian court officials that human rights organizations say are at the forefront of a crackdown against political activists and who routinely hand out harsh punishments including floggings, lengthy prison sentences, and even executions for minor or trumped-up charges.

Since being charged in mid-December Rezaian has only had a single 90-minute meeting with his lawyer, who learned about the court date via the Iranian media. His mother, who travelled to Iran for the hearing and has previously met with the country's authorities to plead for her son's release, was denied access to the court.

Rezaian's trial overlaps with the final stretch of talks between Iran and world powers over Tehran's nuclear aspirations leading to speculation that the journalist is being used as a pawn in an internal power struggle between reformists and hardliners that oppose negotiations with the United States.

_Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: _@harrietsalem