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Trial of US journalist accused of spying starts in Iran

Jason Rezaian
Jason Rezaian nbcnews.com

The trial of Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian started behind closed doors in a revolutionary court in Tehran on Tuesday. Rezaian is standing trial with his wife Yeganeh Salehi, a reporter with the Emirates-based newspaper The National, and a photographer. The trial takes place just over a month before a deadline for talks between Iran and the P5 plus one powers over Tehran’s nuclear programme.

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Jason Rezaian’s lawyer, Leila Asham, is confident he has a good case.

“Based on the evidence, she is convinced that there no basis for the charges against Jason, there is no fact that would suggest that he’s done anything wrong,” Jason’s brother, Ali told RFI in a telephone interview.

Rezaian's wife, Yeganeh Salehi, who is also a journalist, appeared in court alongside her husband and a female press photographer.

The judge in the case is Abolghassem Salavati, who is on an EU blacklist for presiding over the “show trials” in the summer of 2009 and condemning to death two monarchists who appeared at them. He has also sentenced more than 100 political prisoners, human rights activists and demonstrators to lengthy prison sentences.

Rezaian was born in Marin County, California, to US and Iranian parents and holds dual citizenship.

He moved to Tehran in 2008 to become bureau chief of the Washington Post.

He was arrested on 22 July 2014 on charges of espionage and "propaganda against the establishment" and taken into custody in Evin Prison, a detention centre often used for political prisoners.

He has denied all thecharges.

Washington Post executive director Martin Baron called the process “shameful acts of injustice, that continue without end” in a statement .

Iranian news agencies report that a date for a new session of the trial is yet to be announced.

Meanwhile, the US authorities have expressed concern about the case.

“For nine months Jason has been imprisoned in Tehran for nothing more than writing about the hope and the fears of the Iranian people, sharing their stories to the readers of the Washington Post in an effort to bridge our common humanity,” President Barack Obama declared during the annual correspondents’ dinner at the White House. “We will not rest until we bring him home to his family.”

But while some analysts say the Rezaian case may give the US leverage in its ongoing talks on Tehran’s nuclear programme, the government of Hassan Rouhani may not be happy with it either.

“The president and his administration are not behind the arrest and trial of Jason Razeian," says Rouzbeh Parsi, a researcher with Lund University. “This is being pursued by people on the hardline side and by the intelligence apparatus.”

Parsi thinks that the government is aware of how bad this case looks.

“I am sure they will try and do what they can to get him released. But I think this was not on their initiative to begin with,” he says.

The Rezaian case may reveal a deep split within the Iranian power structure.

“It is not even a split on a temporary basis, this is a structural issue,” says Parsi. “The head of the Iranian judiciary is appointed by the supreme leader [Ayatolla Seyyed Ali Khamenei], not by a president of the country.

“And in general that person has tended to be, no matter who it has been, rather conservative, and the judiciary has been used often, more often than not to reign in a reformist president in their programme by simply using the judiciary to jail the people and accuse them of all kinds of things. And, of course, externally it forces the Rouhani administration at every turn to explain why Jason Rezaian is in jail.”

Meanwhile, the Rezaian case does not feature prominently in the Iranian press, and it treatment by the Western media is seen by some with surprise.

“I think it is very Eurocentric for Western leaders to think that it is fine if an Iranian is on trial in the United States,” says Mohammad Marandi, an Americas specialist at the University of Tehran. “Yet they expect the Iranians to be answerable or to be embarrassed about an American or a European who is on trial in Iran.

“Iran has a civil society, it has a judiciary, and whenever an American is arrested in Iran, he’s always innocent, the Western media say he’s innocent, the Western government say he’s innocent, it’s very extraordinary how innocent Americans always are when it comes to Iran,."

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