A Washington Post reporter detained in Iran will be tried for espionage and collaborating with “hostile governments”, in a decision branded absurd Monday by the White House and the newspaper.
Jason Rezaian has been in jail for nine months in Tehran in what has become a politically sensitive case that has parallelled with high-level nuclear talks between Iran and global powers, including the United States.
The allegations against him had been shrouded in secrecy, but in a telephone call to AFP on Monday, Rezaian’s lawyer Leila Ahsan detailed the four serious offences her client faces.
As well as allegedly spying under the first two charges, the 39-year-old journalist, the Post’s Tehran correspondent, stands accused of gathering classified information and of disseminating propaganda against the Islamic republic.
Ahsan, who said she had access to the complete criminal file, said it contained “no justifiable proof” against Rezaian, and that she had seen no legal reason to continue his detention after the case’s preliminary investigation.
But requests for bail had been turned down, said the lawyer who also criticised Iranian media for publishing allegations about Rezaian that are “wrong and contrary to reality”.
No date has yet been set for trial, Ahsan said, shortly after a senior judicial official described the dossier against the journalist, who holds both American and Iranian nationality, as “thick”.
Rezaian will face the allegations in one of the Islamic republic’s revolutionary courts, whose jurisdiction includes handling crimes against national security. Its cases are heard behind closed doors.
However Ahsan said: “Jason is a journalist and the nature of his work is to have access to information and to publish it. He had no access to confidential information, either directly or indirectly.”
Rezaian was detained in Tehran on July 22 last year, along with his Iranian wife Yeganeh Salehi, also a journalist, who was released on bail after spending two-and-a-half months in custody.
Rezaian is being held in the capital’s notorious Evin Prison and his family have frequently spoken of their fears for his health, citing his need for medication to combat high blood pressure.
But Ahsan said he was “in good spirits” despite being held in cramped conditions. He has also had no access to newspapers or media.
His mother Mary told AFP she had discussed the charges with the journalist’s wife, who remains in Tehran, but had no further comment.
– ‘No link’ to nuclear talks –
The reporter’s detention has political resonance both because of his dual nationality and the long-running nuclear talks regarding Tehran’s disputed nuclear programme.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said it had no official confirmation of the allegations, but if reports of Rezaian being accused of spying were true it would be “absurd” and that the charges should be “immediately dropped”.
But the journalist’s predicament would have no bearing on a nuclear deal either way, he added.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif last week said the reporter faced “very serious” allegations but it was a matter for Iran’s judiciary, insisting the case was free of political interference.
Ahsan also said the allegations against her client “had no link” with the nuclear talks, but in a nod to the diplomacy she added: “I hope this matter will accelerate the liberation of my client.”
In a rare official comment regarding Rezaian, Gholamhossein Esmaili, Tehran’s judiciary chief, said Monday: “The file is thick and contains different aspects.”
Quoted by the official IRNA news agency, he added: “In due course the judgment will be pronounced.”
In a statement, the Post’s executive editor Martin Baron said: “The grave charges against Jason that Iran has now disclosed could not be more ludicrous.
“It is absurd and despicable to assert, as Iran’s judiciary is now claiming, that Jason’s work first as a freelance reporter and then as The Post’s Tehran correspondent amounted to espionage.”
Rezaian was among four US citizens that President Barack Obama last month urged Iran to return home.
On April 2, Iran and world powers agreed the key parameters for a deal that would end a 12-year standoff about concerns that Iran is seeking a nuclear bomb, an allegation it denies. A final agreement is due by the end of June.