544 Days in an Iranian Prison

Washington Post writer and GW SMPA Terker Distinguished Fellow Jason Rezaian talks about his book, “Prisoner.”

Jason Rezaian
Jason Rezaian (l) discusses his new book, Prisoner, with SMPA Director Frank Sesno. (William Atkins/GW Today)
January 28, 2019

By B.L. Wilson

At the start of the conversation with Washington Post former Teheran correspondent Jason Rezaian, School of Media and Public Affairs Director Frank Sesno challenged a full house at the Dorothy Betts Marvin Center Theatre Wednesday night to consider the following harrowing circumstances: 

“What would it be like,” he said, “if someone picked you off the street while you were doing your job, threw you into solitary confinement, kept you isolated, so you had no idea what was going on in the outside world, what was being done to help you or where your wife was and threatened you with execution?”

That is the subject of Mr. Rezaian’s new book, 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,​​​​ which he spent the past two years writing while on the campus of the George Washington University as a SMPA Terker Distinguished Fellow. The discussion was co-sponsored by GW and Politics and Prose.

Mr. Sesno, who dates the start of his journalism career at CNN to the release of Americans held hostage in Iran 40 years ago, introduced Mr. Rezaian as “a leading member of the family of freedom, freedom to think, to write, to move about, to pursue information, to share it with others and be committed to truth.”

Along with his wife, Yeganeh Rezaian, Mr. Rezaian was arrested and jailed after having worked as a journalist in Iran for five years. He was accused of being the CIA’s station chief in Teheran.

“I thought to myself, ‘This is not only a mistake, it is a joke,’” he said.

What was the Iranian government’s proof? Among other things, a tongue-in-cheek kick-starter project Mr. Rezaian had engaged in four years earlier to raise money to grow avocados in Iran was seen as code for an espionage operation.

“‘This is all the proof we need,’” he said his jailers told him. “’You have the option here of copping to all your other crimes or you are going to be executed or spend the rest of your life in prison.’”

He saw his wife for a brief moment after their capture and then spent the first seven weeks in solitary confinement in a cell no larger than an 8-by-10 foot Persian carpet.

“That was my whole world except when they took me for interrogations,” he said. “They would blindfold me and lead me to another part of the prison and level all these crazy accusations.”

The interrogations could at times take a bizarre turn. In one instance his captors urged him to sing. He said he agreed on the condition that they stand, then sang the U.S. national anthem and told them, “You guys just paid respect to the great Satan.”

He explained that they were trying to take away his dignity. “I derive my strength from being able to laugh at things,” he said.

In the meantime, The Washington Post, his wife, who was subsequently released, and family and friends were working on the outside to gain his release, efforts that included a statement from Muhammad Ali, who is considered as much of a hero in the Muslim world as he is in the United States.

“I thought to myself, if that is true, that is the coolest thing,” he said.

Mr. Rezaian came to realize he was part of a larger campaign the Iranians were waging, though he said, prompting the audience to laugh, he would really prefer being compared to a larger piece on the chessboard than a pawn.

During the time he was held, Iran was in negotiations with the United States over ending its nuclear weapons program, getting sanctions against Iran lifted, the return of Iranians in U.S. prisons and other Americans and foreign nationals in Iranian prisons and the release of Iranian assets.

Five months in, he was put on trial and taken before a judge known internationally as “the judge of death” for the more than 600 people he has sentenced to executions. At first Mr. Rezaian said he was “scared to death.” But he said he also knew that most foreign nationals ended up in the judge’s courtroom because Iran was trying “to squeeze something out of the other country.”

Mr. Rezaian said his lowest point came when he didn’t go home in the sixth months after the administration of President Barack Obama reached a nuclear weapons deal with Iran in July 2015. He feared that if he were still held when the deal was implemented, he would never get out.  A number of Americans and other foreign nationals are still being held hostage by Iran.

“When I do have a nightmare, it is always the same thing…I’m still there,” he said.


Politics and Society


Former Imprisoned Journalist Talks Reporting Under Threat

March 22, 2017
Yeganeh Rezaian shares with students in the Women’s Leadership Program the challenges facing female reporters in Muslim countries.