Washington Post writer Jason Rezaian, held prisoner in Iran from 2014 to 2016, testified against the Iranian government in U.S. federal court on Tuesday.
Rezaian is suing Iran for committing “unlawful acts of terrorism, torture, hostage taking, and other torts” against him and his family and seeks a multimillion-dollar settlement.
The Post anticipated Rezaian’s testimony would “provide the most detailed public accounting yet of his 18 months in captivity” along with the two months his wife Yeganeh Salehi was held. Rezaian’s original court filing was already detailed enough to conjure nightmares as he described physical abuse, from sleep deprivation to hideous living conditions, and psychological torture that included threats against his wife and family. Salehi’s treatment during her briefer incarceration was no less abusive.
The suit alleges Iran seized him as a hostage to obtain policy concessions from the United States, with only the thinnest pretense of prosecuting him for espionage. When it did go through the motions of putting him on trial, he was not always invited to attend the proceedings. Tehran eventually got what it wanted from the Obama administration, releasing Rezaian and three other American hostages in exchange for seven Iran prisoners held by the U.S., $1.7 billion in cash, and $100 billion worth of assets unfrozen in the Iran nuclear deal.
Rezaian’s lawsuit seeks damages not only for his mistreatment and its lingering effects, which will “require specialized medical treatment for the rest of his life,” but for the damage Iran inflicted on his ability to practice journalism:
As a direct result of his mistreatment by Iran and its agents, Jason will never feel safe living or working in or even near Iran as long as the current regime remains in power. He and his wife cannot pursue the life they had planned for the future, which included starting a family in iran, raising children near Yeganeh’s family in Tehran, splitting their time between Iran and the United States, and pursuing journalism careers in both countries. The careers and lives they led prior to their arrest abruptly came to an end on July 22, 2014. They have no choice but to start over, without their jobs and networks of support in Iran.
The court has scheduled two days of hearings from Rezaian, his family, doctors, and other expert witnesses who will testify on the physical and psychological injuries he sustained and the illegality of his treatment under both international and Iranian law.
The Washington Post noted that Iran never responded to the lawsuit, filed in October 2016. The Iranian mission to the United Nations did not respond to requests for comment from the paper.
As to whether Rezaian has any chance of receiving compensation from Iran, the Post noted his suit was filed under an exemption to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act that allows U.S. citizens to sue foreign governments for “terrorist acts, torture or hostage-taking by state sponsors of terrorism as designated by the State Department.” Iran hit the trifecta by earning formal designations from the State Department for terrorism, torture, and hostage-taking.
Numerous successful suits against Iran over the years have not been able to collect a great deal of compensation because most of Iran’s exposed assets in securities and real estate are frozen. A large number of claims targeted the fund established to compensate victims of Iranian terrorism after the capture of the U.S. Embassy in 1979, including those from 9/11 victims after a federal court in New York found “Iran’s provision of material support to al-Qaeda was a cause of the 9/11 attacks.”
The Post quoted Katie Townsend of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press hoping the lawsuit would shame Iran out of abusing journalists, although why that would be the case when Iran profited richly from holding Rezaian hostage and probably stands to lose nothing of substance in his lawsuit is difficult to understand. The Iranian government has displayed a very limited capacity for shame since the 1979 revolution.
“At a time when journalists around the world are facing increasing threats of violence and imprisonment simply for reporting the news, we hope that Jason’s lawsuit discourages not only Iran, but also other regimes, from inflicting these kinds of unconscionable harms on journalists,” said Townsend.
Jason Rezaian’s book on his harrowing experience, Prisoner: My 544 Days In an Iranian Prison – Solitary Confinement, a Sham Trial, High-Stakes Diplomacy, and the Extraordinary Efforts It Took to Get Me Out, will be published later in January.