Washington Post Journalist Jason Rezaian on His Iranian Imprisonment

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Washington Post Journalist Jason Rezaian on His Iranian Imprisonment

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WilmerHale Partner David Bowker talks with Jason Rezaian, a journalist with The Washington Post and the paper’s former Tehran bureau chief who was wrongfully charged and convicted by the Iranian government on false claims of espionage. While imprisoned in Iran for 544 days, Jason was repeatedly tortured for information that he clearly did not possess. David, along with a WilmerHale team that included Ambassador Robert Kimmitt, helped obtain Jason’s release and developed a legal strategy that resulted in a $180 million judgment against the government of Iran, including $30 million in compensatory damages for Jason and his family and $150 million in punitive damages. Jason speaks about:

  • his life in Iran before his imprisonment
  • his arrest and captivity
  • his sham Iranian trial
  • the extraordinary efforts that led to his eventual release
  • bringing the civil case against Iran
  • the current state of affairs between the US and Iran

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    Speakers: Brendan McGuire, David Bowker and Jason Rezaian

    McGuire: I am excited to be joined today by journalist and author, Jason Rezaian, and my partner at WilmerHale, David Bowker. Born and raised in California, Jason Rezaian is an Iranian-American who was named the Washington Post Tehran Bureau Chief in 2012. Two years later in July 2014 the home he shared with his Iranian wife Yegi was raided by the Iranian government. Both Jason and his wife were arrested and many of their belongings were seized. Over the next year and half Jason was held in Iran’s notorious Evin prison and falsely accused of espionage. For the first 49 days he was held in solitary confinement in an eight-foot by four-foot cell. He was fed so poorly he lost 40 pounds in his first 40 days of confinement. He was routinely interrogated, threatened with summary execution and dismemberment, and subjected to psychological torture and physical abuse. His captors threatened to harm his wife as well. He then stood trial in Iran in a sham proceeding with no evidence provided by either side and his court-appointed lawyer was only permitted to meet with him in the Iranian judge’s presence. The judge threatened him with a death sentence before any evidence was heard, and though Iranian media reported that he was convicted and sentenced, no official judgment and sentence were ever rendered. Instead, every indication was that Mr. Rezaian was a hostage and bargaining chip to be traded by the Iranian government for Iranian nationals in American custody.

    All the while, and largely without his knowledge, his family and many individuals and organizations here in the US rallied to his defense and pressed his case with the US government. Ultimately, in January 2016, Jason was released from prison and allowed to return to the US. January 17, 2021 marked the five-year anniversary of his release. Since then, he has become a powerful and prominent voice on a number of topics, including press freedom and US/Iran relations. He has published a book about his ordeal and more recently, he successfully sued the Iranian government here in the United States, obtaining a substantial judgment based on his wrongful imprisonment. The leaders of Jason’s legal team here at WilmerHale were Ambassador Robert Kimmitt and David Bowker. David is the chair of our firm's International Litigation practice and will join us today to interview Jason. The WilmerHale team designed a legal strategy that resulted in a 180 million dollar judgment against the government of Iran, including 30 million dollars in compensatory damages for Jason and his family and 150 million dollars in punitive damages. As David said after the judgment, to meet Iran’s injustice with the rule of the law is part of what motivated Jason and his family to bring this case. Jason and David, thank you both for being here today. Jason your experience and the manner in which you have responded to it speaks to so many important topics, from moral courage to freedom of the press to the rule of law. While we cannot do justice to all of them in this episode particularly in today’s environment, we hope that today’s conversation reminds all of us of the importance of our bedrock principles of due process, guaranteed legal representation, and government transparency. David, with that in mind, I will turn it over to you and Jason.

    Bowker: Thank you, Brendan. It is my pleasure to introduce our client and dear friend and the protagonist of our story, Jason Rezaian. Jason, thank you so much for being here.

    Rezaian: Thanks for having me. This is a special opportunity and you know I’ve had the opportunity to talk about my experience in so many different forum over the last few years, but this is a really unique one and one that means a lot to me.

    Bowker: Well, thank you, we’re honored to have you here. So, let’s get right into it. If you could tell us first about your life in Iran before you were taken into custody by the Iranian government in July of 2014.

    Rezaian: So, I grew up in the San Francisco Bay area and my mom was from the Midwest and my dad was from Iran. Growing up in the 80s and 90s you heard a lot about Iran, but it was this faraway place that our only concept of was sort of formed by what we saw on the news—a country that was always angry at America, burning our flag, taking our diplomats hostage, that sort of thing—and it just didn’t jibe with the experience I had with Iranians from my own family. So, I was always fascinated by their culture, the people, and the idea of going to see what it was like. In 2001 I finally had the opportunity to do that. I was hooked. I had just graduated from college. I was a freelance writer, aspiring journalist, and between 2001 and 2007 I made many trips to Iran. Traveling from San Francisco to Tehran is about as far away as you can get. It takes about a day of flights and layovers to get there, but I made that trip probably 20 times between 2001 and 2007. Then ultimately in 2009 I moved there to work as a freelance journalist full-time. And you know, life was good. I mean obviously it’s an authoritarian regime running that country, a theocracy that does not believe in the same kind of democratic rights and equality that we do here in the United States, but that didn’t make it any less fascinating. And the experiences I had there, relationships I made—including finding the woman who would ultimately become my wife—between 2009 and when I was arrested it really became my home, and life was actually, for all intents and purposes, really good.

    Bowker: What was your job like for the Washington Post when you became the Tehran correspondent for the Post? That must have been a heady responsibility as you were reporting back to a United States audience and really an international audience for that paper. What was that like?

    Rezaian: You know, Dave, I had spent three years doing this work full time on a freelance basis writing for a wide range of publications around the world from newspapers in the UAE, the Times of London, Time Magazine, some articles I wrote were picked up by the New York Times. But to have this opportunity to be the lone voice for the paper of record of the US capital was a huge responsibility and one that I took incredibly seriously and, for me, my mission was to really paint a picture of everyday life in Iran, what the Iranian experience was, for an American audience that had decided long ago that this was a country that we couldn’t understand, that we couldn’t come to terms with, that was, in fact, our enemy and I wanted to kind of challenge some of those assumptions by telling the tales of ordinary people and their fears, their aspirations, their hopes. It was a really unique opportunity at a unique time when engagement between Washington and Tehran seemed more possible than it ever had before since 1979.

    Bowker: So, let’s focus for a moment on the imprisonment from July 22, 2014 to January 16, 2016. Why did they target you? And tell us about what happened. The way you were taken into custody and how you were treated.

    Rezaian: Yeah, so I mean I always say that the reason they targeted me and they took me is the same reason that that first European guy climbed Mount Everest: Because I was there. Right? I was one of a small handful of correspondents for international news organizations. I am one of hundreds of thousands of Iranian/US dual nationals. Probably one of several thousand who was living in Iran at that moment. I am arguably one of the most high profile ones. There are quite a lot of people with connections to the Iranian regime who have a second nationality either US, UK, Canadian. But I was really one of the only people who was a well-known brand name or connected to a brand name corporation that they could leverage as trade bait. Now that wasn’t something that really occurred to me in the early days and weeks of my detention. But over time as I came to understand the circumstances of what was happening to me and negotiations between the US and Iran it became abundantly clear I was being held as a hostage in an attempt to extract political concessions from the US. I think when I was taken it was probably not with a very clear picture of what they wanted to get from me. I’ve always considered that initial act of taking me more of an internal domestic Iranian political play and one that quickly mushroomed out of everyone’s control into an international incident—one that the civilian part of the Iranian regime that negotiations deals with the outside world including the United States in this case has become really adept at exploiting for their own purposes.

    Bowker: Well, on that dramatic day in July of 2014 when you and Yegi were physically arrested and taken into custody at Evin prison on the outskirts of Tehran, I know that you couldn’t possibly have known what was happening on your behalf on the other side of the world. But your wonderful employer the Washington Post was panicked and flew into action and reached out to the WilmerHale law firm, in particular to our fearless leader Ambassador Bob Kimmitt, and engaged us to help with the effort to, in the first instance, make sure you were okay, try to get help to you, and make sure that you were getting the kind of treatment that you deserved and that the law entitled you to. And so your leadership at the Washington Post—publisher Fred Ryan, and editor Marty Baron, and foreign editor Doug Jehl, and General Counsel Jay Kennedy, and many others really just did exactly what you would hope an employer would do and pulled out all the stops to help and help you and make sure you were safe. And it was a lot of work that was being done in your name at a time when you were completely out of communication with the rest of the world. When did you finally come to realize what kind of effort was being made on your behalf to try to get you out and to protect you?

    Rezaian: It’s a great question, Dave, and it’s a difficult one to answer. I think the truth is that I didn’t have a full understanding of that until after I was released. You know, my mom and Yegi, who were able to visit me, were being shielded from specific knowledge of efforts around securing my release for the very wise reason that should they be arrested or detained in Iran that information might be used against us. The day that I was released, when my interrogator and main tormentor of 18 months told me that there were 20 American lawyers working on my behalf, I laughed at him and said that’s just one more lie in a series of them and I remember coming back and recounting that to you and to Bob. And I think Bob responded by saying actually I think 23 or 26 lawyers actually billed hours on this case. Does that sound about right?

    Bowker: That may be right.

    Rezaian: So, it's been a process over the last five years of discovery. I’ve had the opportunity to formally interview a lot of people who were involved in those efforts, first and foremost at the Washington Post, but also you and Bob, a whole slew of US government officials, many of whom.. I know it’s never good to put a timestamp on a conversation, but we are having this conversation on the day that Joe Biden was inaugurated and so many of those people who worked on my case have already been named to very prominent positions in Biden’s administration. You know when I think about it, it makes me blush to know that so many people spent so much time, energy, a lot of money to bring me back and I just hope I am worth it.

    Bowker: Well, even though we had not ever met you when we were engaged to help you, we knew you must have been pretty special given how your employer spoke about you, how your family rushed to the front lines to help, your mother, Mary, your wife, Yegi, your brother, Ali, all did extraordinary amounts of work over the time you were in prison and we had the great privilege and pleasure of working very closely with them. I’ll never forget helping Yegi find Iranian counsel for you in connection with the sham criminal proceedings that were underway in Iran and we will never forget working with Ali to bring your case to the UN working group on arbitrary detention where Ali ultimately was able to present our arguments to a plenary session of the UN human rights council in front of a 140 countries including an Iranian delegation that very conspicuously surveilled us and tried to intimidate us and harassed us, and your brother was really very fearless in the face of all that. And you know how much he did in front of Congress and the press and all the rest. So, we knew you were special and we confirmed it when we finally met you after your release.

    Rezaian: You knew how special even though you guys had read all my emails that would probably tell you otherwise.

    Bowker: Hahaha no, to the contrary, they confirmed it. For our listeners we did an internal investigation including a full review of your emails, which felt odd—it felt odd to be doing that, an invasion of your privacy, but we had a select few associates who were very discreet in their review and did a phenomenal job. The point of that was to make sure we knew what the Iranians had in their possession, because we knew they had hacked your devices and obtained your communications. So, we were intent on finding what they might use against you and, in fact, we did find the things that they ultimately pointed to as evidence of espionage and those things were absolutely not evidence of espionage because of course you were a reporter, and so we were prepared in the public dialogue to rebut the allegations, we worked with your Iranian lawyer so that they she could rebut the allegations, and in the end the Iranian case and Iranian claims fell flat—the international debate over your case, because it was clear that they had no evidence of their preposterous claims. So that’s why we did all of that. But I want to turn it back to you to talk about your trial and I’m putting air quotes around that because I know it was nothing like what a trial is in the United States.

    Rezaian: Look I think that those Iranian claims you talked about—the fact that my judge Abolghassem Salavati, who is a well-known human rights offender, is on multiple sanction lists because of his prolific use of the death penalty, especially in cases of arbitrary detention and the prisoners of conscience. Even in his court room—and again there is air quotes around that--I think those claims fell flat. He was being pressured to deliver a very stiff verdict against me and the reality is that no verdict was ever delivered. Nothing was ever announced.

    The trial, the procedure, I am trying to think of a good analogy. LA Law or Boston Legal is a much more accurate and real portrayal of a court proceeding than this. If we are going to take it to cinematic terms and some listeners might remember this and some might not. Early or mid 80's music video, Sammy Hagar’s song, “I Can’t Drive 55” where the judge beheads an action figure. It was very much like that, you know, the threat that this guy was going to kill me for the crimes that I had committed that were so intense, so sinister that they didn’t even have a name for them. That they couldn’t even utter the things that I had done, because they were so dangerous to Iran’s national security. It was a joke, it was farcical, and by that time I had already been in prison for a year, I had heard these allegations thrown at me so many different times and I had made the decision that when I was in the court room I would defend myself. There were times in the interrogation room—being subjected to long hours of questioning on the most ridiculous claims, being threatened with death and dismemberment, being threatened with the death and dismemberment of my wife—where I would bend and do the things they wanted me to do, but in their court of law I decided to stand up for myself and that included laughing in the face of this judge, because although the accusations they were making against me were very serious that was no reason to take them seriously.

    Bowker: Well said, I will never forget speaking with your lawyer after each of the hearings and hearing how despondent she was and how frustrated she was, in part because you had no opportunity to confront any witnesses and indeed there were no witnesses against you. You had no opportunity to confront any evidence and indeed there was no evidence against you. The whole thing was surreal and Kafkaesque and just profoundly unjust. Contrast that experience with your effort to obtain justice in the United States and walk us through your decision-making about that and what that experience was like, your civil case against Iran after your release.

    Rezaian: Well that was something you and Bob, my family, and I had began discussing two or three months after I was released. And I had thought about this many times while I was sitting in a prison cell, because your name is being so tarnished, and whether or not I had ever done anything wrong, the only official accounting until the point we took Iran to court in the US was their version of the events and I did not want that to be the case. So, it was really important to me 1) to hold them accountable in a court of law that actually matters and is transparent and probably more transparent than I would have liked, obviously. This is a matter of public record now and anybody who wants to can read the details of what was done to my family and me. That was part of it. Hold them accountable. Get some measure of justice. Make it more difficult for them to do this again to others in the future, and really to have a public record for all time. I think one of the things I’ll say is I have read some other complaints in similar cases and none of them were as detailed as the work that we did. It took us six or seven months to build our case. Isn’t that right, Dave?

    Bowker: Yeah, that is exactly right. We had fact witnesses and experts as you’ll remember.

    Rezaian: And lots of hours of deposition with my family and I think it's one of these things when you get started with it, you think to yourself I may or may not ever see a dime from this, but this is the right thing to do and I have the best team in the world to do it with. It was a hard journey. As you know there were a lot of hiccups a long the way. You know it took, what, almost three years for us to get in front of the judge?

    Bowker: Yeah, it took a long time.

    Rezaian: And once we did it took a really long time to get a judgment. But I am so, so thankful that we did it because this is the record of that experience that counts now.

    Bowker: Yeah it was, I remember a very big moment for all of us and I think it must have been in fact I know it was for you as well. To be finally scheduled to have a trial and to be able to go into court and give testimony under oath about all that had happened and to have the judge essentially cross examine each of the witnesses was a rather remarkable experience and I know not easy for you and others. And I know that was a big sacrifice, but something you needed to do to get to the end. Did you have any regrets about doing that or did you find that was helpful in anyway?

    Rezaian: It certainly was not helpful in any kind of therapeutic way. The experience of doing it. And I’ll tell you. You know you mentioned the fact that we had consultations and testimony from expert witnesses, one of whom was a psychiatrist, a medical expert, who I had to spend many hours talking about the hardest moments of my life with. And, you know, I think most of us thing of a psychiatrist or psychologist as a therapist. This was absolutely not therapy, right? I mean this is revisiting very very traumatic experiences and I did this it was during the first year after release, so it would have been 2017. Brought a lot of stuff back up to the surface that still was lingering and I dealt with nightmares and flashbacks and that sort of thing. But I really am so glad that we did it. I mean all of this is a long journey and part of that journey is a lot of self-examination and re-examining of experiences and decisions. So, yeah, as hard as it was, as taxing as it was emotionally and psychologically, and obviously I mean it's not something that went unnoticed in the press—it was a news story as well. But I don’t regret it at all.

    Bowker: Well, for our listeners, I would say that your case has been a groundbreaking case and been to helpful to a lot of other victims and I think there are a lot of other victims who have reached out to us and to you looking for guidance and advice and a path forward. I know that you have spent an extraordinary amount of time helping the U. government understand what it can do better and what works and what's helpful. And I know that you have done that with a lot of families and a lot of victims and a lot of organizations and we respect you so much for doing that. We know how much that has made a difference for others. I just want to ask you a couple of questions about the current state of affairs between our two countries. What your observations are about the state of the relationship now? And what it looks like to you going forward?

    Rezaian: I think taking a tough line on Iran has never been a difficult position to take here in Washington DC. President Biden has long stated throughout the campaign and I think probably today already that he intends to reengage with Iran over the nuclear issue to get the US back into that deal, which President Trump took us out of, which subsequentially Iran stopped complying with as well. But I would say that it is going to be a challenging road ahead and to really change the relationship, alter the course of history in that part of the world, and stand up for some really clear and cherished American values: freedom of expression, rule of law, gender equality, these sorts of things. I think the Biden Administration is going to have to make these issues a priority, and I would say first and foremost Iran has a 42 year track record of being the world’s number one state sponsored hostage taker, right? Everybody calls Iran the number one state sponsor of terror. I’m going to kind of drill down a little bit more on hostage taking because it's something they did at the US embassy in 1979 and they haven’t stopped doing since. And part of the reason they haven’t stopped doing that is because of all of these flimsy legal terms, I mean we talked about the working group on arbitrary detention or wrongful detention. You know there is an international hostage convention, which Iran is a signer on, that outlaws governments from taking hostages. You guys are the lawyers, you understand how this works and you understand how they get around these conventions by subjecting innocent people like myself to really opaque judicial proceedings. So, I think that this issue of Iran’s hostage taking is something that’s going to have to be addressed not only by the Biden administration because it's happening with citizens of other countries as well. I know you have communicated with relatives of people of various nationalities who have dealt with this and I am just glad to know that I was represented by the firm that understands this particular issue probably better than any other firm in the world and I hope we can work together to end it.

    Bowker: That’s a perfect note to end on, Jason, it's been such a great honor and a privilege and a pleasure for all of us here at the firm to work with you and your family, to get to know you as a client and as a friend. We really respect your journalism, your opinions and insights, and we are really grateful that you have shared them with us today and that you continue to share those with the country on these important subjects. So heartfelt thanks. I know some of these topics are not the easiest things to talk about, but we appreciate you spending your time with us today, and Brendan with that I turn it over to you.

    McGuire: David, that’s very well said and Jason let me echo David’s thanks. This was an incredibly special episode for us and to be able to have you on and your willingness to share your experience and then your response to the experience is very meaningful to all and we hope it will be meaningful to those who listen to this episode of In the Public Interest. With thanks to Jason and David again for joining us, we also thank you our listeners for listening. If you enjoyed this podcast, please share it with a friend and take a minute to subscribe, rate, and review us wherever you get your podcasts. Until then, we'll see you next time on In the Public Interest.