It's been a little more than three years since Jason Rezaian was released from an Iranian prison where he spent 544 days, falsely accused of espionage.
Now the former Tehran bureau chief for The Washington Post has written a new book chronicling that 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."
Rezaian (@jrezaian) tells Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson that he's back to writing for The Washington Post, mostly about Iran and press freedom issues. He says there are still some aspects of life that he's getting used to — "bright lights, lots of sounds, crowded places" — but that "freedom is definitely better than solitary confinement."
"I spent seven weeks at the beginning of my imprisonment in solitary," Rezaian says. "My wife and I were arrested from our homes at gunpoint, taken to Evin Prison, blindfolded, handcuffed, separated, thrown into solitary. I had no news about her for the first 35 days that we were there, and solitary is designed to really make you go crazy — and it works."
On how he realized quickly after being imprisoned that he wanted to have kids
"Prison cells — and I would say specifically solitary confinement cells — are like a coffin. You are very much physically alive but constrained. I was in a cell that was 4 1/2-by-8 1/2 feet wide. The only times I was let out was for interrogation. And so in a confined space like that, you think about your mortality and what you miss, and things that you might want to do in your future. And when we first encountered each other after five weeks, that was the first thing she said to me, and I said, 'Me too. You know, I really want to have a kid.' So we're, you know, we're trying in earnest."
"The bottom line is if you end up in prison and then put on trial and you don't have a lawyer, and the court that you're in has the word 'revolutionary' in its name, the odds of getting a fair trial are pretty slim."Jason Rezaian
On what he was told about why he was imprisoned
"On the first night, I was told that I was the station chief of the Tehran CIA office and that they had plenty of proof to back it up. I had been working as a journalist in Iran for five years at that point with full state permission. The week before I had been in Vienna covering the latest round of the nuclear negotiations between Iran and world powers. I was doing my job in the most above-board and transparent way that you can imagine. So they started hurling all of these allegations that I was spying and was the architect of the sanctions regime against Iran. None of these arguments held any water, but I learned very quickly it didn't matter. The bottom line is if you end up in prison and then put on trial and you don't have a lawyer, and the court that you're in has the word 'revolutionary' in its name, the odds of getting a fair trial are pretty slim."
On why the Iranians went through with a trial even though was unfair
"I think that they want to publicly go through the machinations of a process, a judicial process, so that their international representatives, when they come to the United Nations, can say, 'See we put them through a rigorous trial and our judicial agencies are independent from the executive offices, and we have a robust and democratic society.' "
On if he thought the Iranians were making up their story about him
"The planners of my arrest and detention obviously knew that I hadn't done anything wrong. My only crime was that I worked for a high-profile American news organization and happened to be an American citizen. The people doing the interrogations though, on some level, had to believe that I was guilty of something."
On what the Iranians wanted to get out of holding him in prison
"They were looking for political concessions from the very start. Iran has been taking prisoners, hostages for 40 years and using them to extract concessions from foreign governments, most often the United States. So I see myself as unremarkable in that sense, on this long continuum of U.S. hostages in Iran."
On how his father, who owned a Persian rug business, sent rugs to the hostages after the Iranian hostage crisis
"My dad had been living in the United States for 20 years at that point. He was a U.S. citizen. He'd never seen anything like this before. So like so many others, he decided to make a gesture. And what he did was offer each one of them $1,000 of credit in his shop. And I've been to the home of one of the former hostages just outside of D.C. three or four times, and every time I come over, he's a wonderful gentleman, and he flips over the corner of the rug where it's got my dad's label on it, and says, 'Your dad gave me this 40 years ago.' "
"I worked and lived in a society that was run by authoritarians, and I wasn't able to necessarily write and say what I wanted to all the time. Now I can. And I take that privilege very seriously."Jason Rezaian
On if there is anyone he can talk to about his experience in an Iranian prison
"There are. A couple of the hostages from the embassy, I talked to other journalists who've been held in Iran. David Rohde, the former New York Times correspondent who was taken by the Taliban and is now an editor at The New Yorker, has been an incredible advocate and friend of mine. I spoke to him for the first time about two months after I was released, and it was after that conversation that I had my first decent night of sleep and freedom because I realized that I wasn't the first person to go through this and that other people had survived."
On what it meant to him that The Washington Post fought for his release and remembered he was there
"It still does. It makes it a lot easier to go back to work knowing that your colleagues, your employers never forgot about you. I mean, the Post was incredible, but the Post as an institution has a long history of being incredibly supportive of its staff, and in the aftermath, have continued to be so supportive, giving me space to recover, to write my book, and have given me the opportunity to come back to work and write about the things that, for better or worse, I know about. So I end up writing a lot about Iran and press freedom issues."
On if he thinks the Obama administration did enough to get him released from prison
"So I've had the opportunity to meet President Obama a couple of times, and we've talked about all of this, and a lot of folks in his administration apologize to me for it taking so long. I think the reality is I should not have been arrested in the first place, that there might have been possibilities to bring me home earlier. But the administration decided very early on to separate out these negotiations. If the negotiations over myself and other Americans being held in Iran were taking place in the same room as the nuclear negotiations, it would have made it very difficult to get a deal.
"So what happened, and I recount this in the book and in pretty good detail, is a separate channel of secret negotiations that were going on for 14 months. There were a lot of people, opponents of the nuclear deal, in 2015 who used my imprisonment and the imprisonment of other Americans in Iran as a reason why Obama should not do a deal. One of them is now our secretary of state. These very same people in the run up to Trump pulling out of the nuclear deal last year were, and continue to be, silent, on Americans who are still in prison there. So I end up writing about Americans that are in prison in Iran all the time because if I don't do it, I don't know who else will. And I'm thankful to the Obama administration for making my return if not the priority, a priority."
On how his experience in prison shaped his perspective of his work
"It's made me double down. I worked and lived in a society that was run by authoritarians, and I wasn't able to necessarily write and say what I wanted to all the time. Now I can. And I take that privilege very seriously. I worry about the state of press freedom in this country all the time. But I think that our institutions, especially in terms of expression, are on pretty solid ground, and I'm just excited to keep pushing forward."
This segment aired on April 24, 2019.
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