Espionage Charge is BogusWashington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian, who has been in detention since July 2014, was formally charged on April 20.
Rezaian, a 39-year-old dual Iranian national, was charged with espionage and three other offences, all of them serious. He could face up to 20 years in prison.
Recent reports in the Iranian press, particularly those with anti-American views, have called Mr Rezaian a spy with links to Iranian expatriates living in the US and Europe.
According to Rezaian’s lawyer, Leilah Ahsan, the journalist has been found guilty of espionage and is accused of gathering information about internal and foreign Iranian policy for “hostile intent.” His other charges include collaborating with “enemy governments;” owning and collecting secret and classified documents; writing a letter to President Obama and spreading propaganda against the state.
Rezaian’s family recently appointed Ahsan after the authorities repeatedly blocked his former lawyer, Masoud Shafii, from defending his client, and eventually threw him off the case. During Masoud Shafii’s time as Rezaian’s lawyer, he spoke to IranWire about the difficulties of working as an independent lawyer defending political prisoners and prisoners of conscience.
“Placing obstacles in the way of an attorney who might become a problem for violators of the law is not something new,” says lawyer and activist Mehrahgiz Kar. “From the first moment that religious seminaries destroyed the foundations of the modern Iranian judicial system, judges like Salavati [known for handing down hefty sentences for journalists] were brought in, planted in certain courts and instructed to use every trick they knew to undermine the trust between a lawyer and his or her client.”
Following on from the news that Jason Rezaian was formally charged, IranWire asked lawyers Mousa Berzin Kalifeloo and Masoud Shafii about his case. What exactly do these charges mean for the Iranian-American Washington Post correspondent? Would the charges stand up in an international court of law or are they unfounded? What does this mean for the fate of the other jailed journalists in Iran?
Lawyer Berzin Kalifeloo dismisses Rezaian’s espionage charge entirely, citing Article 501 of Iran’s Islamic penal code as justification. This stipulates that a non-military civilian can be found guilty of espionage if he or she “knowingly and intentionally provides unqualified individuals with plans, secrets, documents or decisions about the country’s domestic or foreign policies.”
As Kalifeloo points out, the kind of information or evidence in question is crucial — even though the penal code does not specify what type of information or evidence this might be. It carries a possible jail sentence of one to 10 years.
What’s more, espionage allegations do not apply if the information is available in the public domain, Kalifeloo says. “This means that if an individual gets hold of a piece of information that is not classified and provides unqualified persons with that information, he can’t be considered a spy, since that information is not confidential — it is in the public domain and anyone can have access to it. Therefore, a person who provides others with information published in newspapers or gleaned from unclassified documents has in no way committed espionage.”
But Rezaian is not the first journalist to be accused of “collecting and keeping secret and classified documents.” Maziar Bahari, a Canadian- Iranian journalist who was arrested in 2009, was also charged with espionage when bailiffs, who came to search his house, found a court document detailing the arrest of members of the opposition group, the Freedom Movement of Iran. According to Bahari, the group’s leader gave the court verdict to him in 2002 but there was nothing confidential in it. Judicial officials later read out the letter in court.
Equally, Khalifeloo dismisses Rezaian’s charge of “collaborating with enemy states”. He says, “One should take into consideration that the term ‘enemy state,’ mentioned in the penal code, only applies to states that are at war with Iran and not to those that Iran has good relations with. Currently, Iran is not at war with any country.”
According to Khalifeloo, the term ‘collaboration” is also significant, implying “illegal and continuous communication with the enemy against Iran.” But, he says, the term “cannot be used for a journalist who works for a media outlet from another country, even if that country is deemed to be an enemy state.”
Masoud Shafii not only dismisses the mentioned charges against Rezaian, but also challenges Judge Salavati’s competence. “Judge Salavati is known for his anti-American sentiments. I doubt that someone who publicly announces his anti-American sentiments can be impartial in this case.”
According to the Committee Against Journalists, Iran ranks seventh in the world when it comes to press censorship and the targeting of journalists. “The government uses mass and arbitrary detention as a means of silencing dissent and forcing journalists into exile. Iran became the world's leading jailer of journalists in 2009 and has ranked among the world's worst jailers of the press every year since. Iranian authorities maintain one of the toughest internet censorship regimes in the world, blocking millions of websites, including news and social networking sites. They are suspected of using sophisticated techniques, such as setting up fake versions of popular websites and search engines, and the regime frequently jams satellite signals. The situation for the press hasn’t improved under Rouhani despite the aspirations of UN member states and human rights groups. Rouhani also failed to uphold his campaign promise of reinstating the Association of Iranian Journalists, which has 4,000 members and was forced to close in 2009.”
Despite this, President Hassan Rouhani continues to deny that reporters are targeted. In an interview with CNN last year, he said journalists were neither detained nor jailed for their profession in Iran. This incensed many, resulting in 135 media professionals, both inside and outside of Iran, writing a letter to the Iranian president urging him to stop insulting them by denying the persecution of Iranian journalists.
Ultimately, Iran is a signatory to various human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, all of which they are obliged to abide by. Of special importance is Article 19, which states, “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.” Additionally, Article 24 of Iran’s Constitution is intended to safeguard press freedoms. This, therefore, means that the arrest and prosecution of Jason Rezaian and other journalists under fabricated security charges not only goes against Iran’s obligation under international human rights law, but also against the country’s own laws.