WASHINGTON (CN) — For 18 months, journalist Jason Rezaian wasted away in captivity.
He lost 40 pounds in as many days in an Iranian solitary confinement cell, suffered from pulmonary illnesses, developed infections too personal to describe in a public court, and contemplated suicide. His mother and brother–Mary and Ali Rezaian–described him as “the life of the party” before his capture, but Rezaian said he’s now an anxious man, still recovering from lingering trauma three years later.
Attorney David Bowker’s voice cracked with emotion during his opening remarks at Rezaian’s evidentiary hearing Tuesday before U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon, beginning nearly five hours of testimony on Rezaian’s arrest and torture at the hands of officials from the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Rezaian and his family filed a suit against Iran in Oct. 2016. At the hearing Tuesday, across from Rezaian’s full table of counsel, the table reserved for the defendant remained empty.
Among Judge Leon’s concerns during the hearing was whether Iran would even pay up if he ruled in Rezaian’s favor. Bowker said that although the requested $1 billion in punitive damages was high, he went in with “eyes open” that his team might not see the payout.
While Bowker said a national victim’s fund could finance a percentage of any damages awarded, Judge Leon said the suit “sounds like it’s 99 percent symbolism.”
A prominent Iranian-American journalist, Rezaian was working for the Washington Post in Tehran in July 2014 when he and his wife were arrested in their apartment. After two months in solitary confinement with daily interrogations, Rezaian’s captors moved him to a detention center where he would stay until his release in Jan. 2016.
His captors repeatedly told him they had imprisoned him for espionage, citing his many articles for the Post–and even a job application to the Obama administration–as evidence of his crimes against Iran.
“They were essentially accusing me of being a journalist at every step of the way,” Rezaian said.
He believes his hearings were “closely pegged” with key dates of the U.S. and Iran nuclear negotiations, making his capture a point of leverage in the talks.
Born of an American mother and an Iranian father, Rezaian said his family was tightknit. He started freelancing after graduating from New York’s New School, building a body of work that eventually landed him a coveted position at the Washington Post in Tehran.
Rezaian and his wife Yeganeh Salehi were both at the peak of their journalism careers, planning to split time between Iran and the U.S., when officials from the Iranian government arrested them at gunpoint while they prepared to leave for a birthday party. This was “literally,” according to Rezaian, the same day they had both been granted year-long permits to practice journalism in the country.
“There are a lot of checks and balances involved,” Rezaian said of the extensive approval process he always adhered to when seeking permission to report in Iran. “This is not a country where you mess with the rules.”
When Mary Rezaian learned of her son’s arrest, she thought there must have been a mistake, confused as to why someone who was “working within the parameters of their profession” could be arrested and held. His brother Ali called his reporting work overseas “meticulous.”
Salehi–who attended the evidentiary hearing–dabbed her eyes as her husband laid out the conditions of his solitary confinement.
Food was “designed” to keep him hungry while he languished in an eight-by-four foot cell. The side of the wall where he could lie down also contained a toilet and a sink–both of which were “breeding grounds” for vermin.
Lights and loud fans were on all hours of the day, and if Rezaian drifted off for even a moment of sleep, guards banged on the cell doors at 6 a.m.
He faced almost-daily interrogations for the first 50 days, while his captors told him his execution was imminent. To coerce a false confession, they threatened him with more solitary confinement, dismemberment and death–for him and his family.
Over 544 days of endless uncertainty, few answers and little accountability, Rezaian was given four hearings in a sham trial Bowker said included “no due process, no witnesses and no evidence.” The first judge to hear Rezaian’s case told him he was putting him to death.
Revolutionary guards forced Rezaian to make public, false confessions on Iranian television prior to his release in 2016. When he finally returned home – waiting 20 hours between his release and finally flying out of Iranian airspace – Rezaian found himself “stunned” that despite the outpouring of support back home, his release had taken years.
“It was a time of incredibly mixed emotions,” he said.
Ali Rezaian estimated he spent about $300,000 trying to get Jason released, in addition to hundreds of television and official appearances, including a speech at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. Every passing holiday or anniversary of another journalist’s release from captivity “felt like a failure.”
“I’m a–was–a very social person before this happened,” Rezaian said. “This severely damaged my ability to relate to people. I’m still not the person that I was.”