After spending 447 days in an Iranian prison, Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post's bureau chief in Tehran, has been convicted of something — but the Iranian government has not been clear about the details of his trial, which ended two months ago, or about the judgment against him.
Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejehi, a spokesperson for the Iranian judiciary, appeared on state TV Sunday night to confirm that Rezaian had indeed been convicted, but said, "I don't have the verdict's details." He indicated that Rezaian would have the opportunity to appeal.
Rezaian had been charged with four separate counts — including espionage, "collaborating with hostile governments," and "propaganda against the establishment"— and tried before the secretive Revolutionary Court, where only his lawyer and the prosecutors were privy to the particulars of the case. Rezaian has been held in Iran's notorious Evin prison, which is famous for housing political prisoners. The charges against him could have brought a maximum sentence of 10 to 20 years, but it remains unclear precisely what charges he was convicted of.
His relatives said on Monday that they had learned of the conviction from media reports, and had so far not been given more information by the Iranian government. When Rezaian's wife and lawyer went to court in Tehran for clarification on Monday, they were turned away.
The vague announcement by the Iranian judiciary drew widespread international condemnation, including denunciations from NSA leaker Edward Snowden and the US State Department.
"Unfortunately, this is not surprising given that this process has been opaque and incomprehensible from the start," said State Department spokesperson John Kirby. "We continue to call for the government of Iran to drop all charges against Jason and release him immediately."
Rezaian's family, the Washington Post, and human rights groups all reacted strongly on Monday to the verdict.
"Today's events are just the latest in what has long been a travesty of justice and an ongoing nightmare for Jason and our family," Rezaian's brother Ali said in a statement provided to VICE News. "To this day, the Iranian government has provided no proof of the trumped up charges against Jason. "
Martin Baron, executive editor of the Washington Post, issued a statement on Monday calling the announcement "an outrageous injustice."
"Iran has behaved unconscionably throughout this case," Baron said. "But never more so than with this indefensible decision by a Revolutionary Court to convict an innocent journalist of serious crimes after a proceeding that unfolded in secret, with no evidence whatsoever of any wrongdoing."
Sherif Mansour, the Middle East program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said that the uncertainty surrounding the verdict "is yet another sign of lack of judicial due process and transparency in this case."
Rezaian was first detained along with his wife, who is a journalist for the Abu Dhabi-based newspaper The National, and two other journalists on July 22, 2014. A dual Iranian-American citizen, Rezaian had served as the Washington Post's Tehran bureau chief since 2012.
The charges against him were only announced nine months after his arrest. For the past 14 months, Iran has conducted a series of closed-door hearings where it presented secret evidence against him.
When VICE News spoke with Ali Rezaian in August, he said that the charges against his brother were trumped up and political. "He was a journalist and nothing but a journalist, just doing his job," Rezaian said. "Anybody who says he was doing anything else is wrong — period."
Though details of the case against Rezaian have been difficult to piece together, media reports indicated that the Iranian government had unearthed a letter that he sent to the presidential campaign of then-Senator Barack Obama three years before he began working with the Post. The Iranian government alleged that Rezaian offered his services as an Iran expert in the letter. The Post has since debunked that claim, showing that Rezaian only filled out an online form to work for Obama and was never hired.
In April, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif hinted that Rezaian might have been tasked by someone in the US government to gather information while working as a journalist in Iran. In a speech at New York University, Zarif said that a "low-level operative" could have potentially tried to "take advantage" of Rezaian, who was looking to obtain a visa for his wife.
Over the last year, Rezaian trial unfolded as tandem with the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council — the US, UK, Russia, China, and France — plus Germany. Though US officials have been pressing for his release, Rezaian's incarceration was considered to be a "side issue" during the nuclear negotiations, and his fate was left up in the air after the deal was inked in August.
Rezaian's lawyer had hinted that a verdict would be issued within weeks of his last court appearance, on August 10. But the weeks stretched to months.
Ali Rezaian said around that time that the family would do everything in their power to bring Jason home — even if that meant appealing to Iran's Supreme Leader for clemency. "We will use whatever means we have to get him out," Ali Rezaian said. "Because he did nothing wrong and he belongs home."
Over the past few months, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani has suggested on several occasions that Rezaian could be included in a broader prisoner exchange. The US currently holds a number of Iranian nationals on charges of evading US sanctions against Iran, and the Rouhani government has offered indications that Rezaian and three other Americans currently being held in Iran could become a bargaining chips in a larger swap.
When asked point blank about the potential of an exchange on CBS's 60 Minutes on September 20, Rouhani answered, "I don't particularly like the word exchange, but from a humanitarian perspective, if we can take a step, we must do it. The American side must take its own steps."
_Follow Avi Asher-Schapiro on Twitter: _@AASchapiro