The last time Ali Rezaian saw his kid brother, Jason—who today, Jan. 23, is marking 185 days of incarceration in Iran’s Evin Prison, notorious for the torture and execution of political dissidents since the reign of the shah—they were in Istanbul together, along with their wives.
The brothers were on vacation visiting their recently widowed mother Mary, who had retired to Turkey’s cosmopolitan cultural capital after a career in California as a family and marriage therapist.
It was early July 2014. The San Francisco-born Jason, 38, The Washington Post’s Tehran bureau chief, and his Iranian-born wife, fellow journalist Yeganeh (“Yegi”) Salehi, had already started packing for a planned trip later that month to the United States, where Salehi had applied for permanent residency status. “They were looking forward to the trip and to come and visit,” says Ali, 43, a biotech and pharmaceutical consultant based in Marin County, Calif.
Two weeks later on July 23, Ali received a phone call from Jason’s boss at The Washington Post, Foreign Editor Douglas Jehl. The previous night, Jason and Yegi had gone missing from their home in Tehran—probably detained by the authorities, Jehl told him.
“It hadn’t been reported yet, and Doug didn’t know a lot about the specifics of what had happened at the house and what to think about it,” Ali recalls. “I think that frequently this happens in Iran. Sometimes people get taken in for questioning, and then they’re released. But within a short period of time, we learned more—that the house had been ransacked and practically taken apart. And when the government didn’t acknowledge that they even had them, obviously this became very serious.”
Ali adds that Jason, who has dual Iranian and American citizenship, and Yegi, 30, a correspondent for The National, a newspaper based in Abu Dhabi, were the unlikeliest of targets.
They had always been careful to follow the Iranian authorities’ strict rules for journalists. Jason—who had reported from Iran without incident since 2008, mostly as a freelancer until he joined The Post’s staff in 2012—enjoyed warm relations with government press officials.
Ironically, the day before his arrest, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance had renewed Jason’s press credentials.
Ali and Jason’s father, who died in 2011, grew up in the northeastern Iranian city of Mashhad in a conservative Muslim family; in 1958, Taghi Rezaian emigrated to the United States, where he met and married Chicagoan Mary Breme, a fellow student at San Francisco State University, and built a successful carpet and antiques importing business.
The brothers grew up surrounded by their Iranian kinfolk in Northern California, and Jason—who visited Iran for the first time in 1999—came to love his paternal homeland.
“It always seemed absurd that they would take Jason, of all people, because he has always been really careful about what he does and what he reports, and always tried to be fair to the Iranian government,” Ali says.
Indeed, in his dispatches for The Post, Jason tended to focus on the everyday lives of ordinary Iranians, attempting to explain and humanize a country whose leaders have long been considered dangerous and truculent totalitarians in the American worldview.
Iran’s nuclear ambitions, along with its continual calls for the destruction of Israel, have been especially alarming to the United States and other Western powers.
Yet five days before he and his wife were hauled away, Jason filed an affectionate feature story about the improbable exploits of an Iranian baseball team, a group of young Persians totally in love with the quintessential American pastime.
“For a long time,” Ali says, “the arrest seemed like it was a mistake, and that they would figure out that they made mistake.”
It took a week for Iranian officials to admit that Jason and Yegi were in government custody—though they refused to say where, how, or for that matter, why—and it took a month for the Iranians to disclose that the couple (who’d been married only 18 months earlier in Tehran, in a traditional Iranian ceremony) were being held separately at Evin (pronounced “eh-veen”) Prison.
“It was very difficult not to know where they were,” Ali says. “On the other hand, it was very difficult to find out that they were in Evin.”
The sprawling prison compound, built in 1972 at the foot of the Alborz mountains in a northern neighborhood of Tehran, was originally run by the SAVAK, the dreaded secret police of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
These days, amidst the fourth decade of the Islamic Republic, the facility is operated—to savage effect—by the equally fearsome Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security.
“Perhaps the darkest period in Evin’s history came in the late summer of 1988 when untold thousands of political prisoners were executed after cursory trials,” says a report by Human Rights Watch. “The authorities use threats of torture, threats of indefinite imprisonment and torture of family members, deception and humiliation, multiple daily interrogations lasting up to five or six hours, denial of medical care, and denial of family visits.”
As the Rezaian family eventually learned, Jason was being held in solitary confinement under horrifying conditions—he slept for the first four and half months, under a ratty blanket, on a cold concrete floor—and without access to a lawyer or even knowledge of any charges against him, both ostensibly requirements of Iranian law.
Regularly subjected to lengthy interrogations, he was initially denied his medicines for a chronic case of high blood pressure; raging eye and groin infections went untreated until last month, when he was finally allowed to see a doctor and obtain Iranian-made drugs.
Yegi, who was also in solitary in a different part of the prison (where the rape of inmates by guards has been known to happen), was released on bail in early October; she is living with her parents and sister in Tehran; can’t leave the country or work as a journalist, and has been permitted occasional brief visits at Evin with her husband.
Circumstances have improved slightly in recent weeks: Yegi has been allowed to consult a lawyer and Jason has been moved out of solitary, into a cell with a cot and a fellow inmate.
But Jason has lost a frightening amount of weight—nearly 45 pounds, Ali says—and is suffering neurological symptoms as a result.
“He’s lost 20 percent of his body weight,” Ali says. “When you lose weight that quickly, you can have problems with your nerves. It causes you to constantly be cold, even when your core body temperature is fine—even when it’s 90 degrees outside.
It’s a common side effect of people who get their stomachs stapled. I do not know what he’s eating. I haven’t delved into things as much as I probably could have—just for my own sanity.”
Ali, who has a young son, has put his consulting business on hold in order to work feverishly for his brother’s freedom. He has launched a website and petition to build support for Jason’s release, and visited the Iranian mission to the United Nations in New York, where officials graciously served him coffee but declined to discuss the case.
Last week, he flew to Geneva, Switzerland, in an unsuccessful attempt to engage with Iranian diplomats on hand for negotiations with the United States and other nations on limiting Iran’s nuclear capabilities.
Several commentators have suggested that Jason is being held as leverage to gain advantage in the talks, or else he has become a pawn in the continuing tensions between reformers and hard-liners in Iran’s complicated power structure.
But Ali insists that his brother’s plight has nothing to do with either internal Iranian politics or international diplomacy. “There is no linkage,” he says.
He says he’s been in near-constant contact with Jason’s bosses at The Post, who declined an interview request, referring The Daily Beast to executive editor Martin Baron’s Jan. 14 statement calling on Iran “to make these charges public, to allow Jason access to a lawyer and to bring a swift and just resolution of a six-month-long nightmare.”
Ali is also in regular touch with the U.S. state department, which has been toiling behind the scenes on Jason’s behalf, while Secretary of State John Kerry last week raised Jason’s case, along with that of other Americans being held in Iran, during a meeting in Geneva with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
Earlier this month, the Iranians announced that Jason would be indicted and that his case was being referred to the Tehran revolutionary court, although his supporters still don’t know the specific allegations, nor has he been permitted to hire an attorney.
The situation, understandably, has placed enormous emotional stress on Jason’s and Yegi’s families, especially on Mary Rezaian, who traveled to Tehran in December and managed, through sheer persistence with Iranian government officials, to have two brief face-to-face visits with her son, one of them on Christmas Day.
Previously, on Thanksgiving Day, she’d had her first contact with Jason—a half-hour-long phone conversation from Evin Prison to her apartment in Istanbul.
“At first, I thought he sounded great, but as we talked, I could tell he wasn’t,” she told The Post about the unexpected phone call. “We tried to talk about past things and previous Thanksgivings, but we both kept breaking down in tears.” She was unavailable for an interview with The Daily Beast.
Since his arrest Mrs. Rezaian—dressed in conservative Muslim garb, including a modest head scarf, and occasionally speaking in Farsi—has made television appearances and videos calling for Jason’s release.
“I speak directly to those with the power to release my son,” she said in a video posted in November. “Enough is enough. You have had 100 days to know my sweet boy. And surely, by now, you know what his family and friends have always told you. Jason is a good, kind man who loves Iran and its people. My son embodies the spirit of true Iranians—those who love their history, their culture and their faith. Jason has dedicated his life to showing the Iranian part of his heart to the world. Every day that you continue to hold him in prison is a dark day for his family and for Iran.”