Distinguished Journalist Shares His Story of Imprisonment in Iran

Dozens of guests and students flooded into St. Mary’s Hall on Oct. 27 to witness a lecture by journalist and author Jason Rezaian, who spent 544 days imprisoned in Tehran, Iran. The talk was hosted by the Center for the Study of Democracy as part of the Benjamin C. Bradlee Distinguished Lecture in Journalism series, named for former Washington Post executive editor and trustee of St. Mary’s College of Maryland (SMCM) Benjamin C. Bradlee.

The lecture followed a reception in the Blackistone room for Rezaian which was put on by the Center for the Study of Democracy. The lecture began with remarks by Tuanda C. Jordan, President of SMCM, who introduced Reizaian and his story as an Iranian-American journalist who was held prisoner in Iran for a year-and-a-half. The president then gave the stage to Rezaian himself and Antonio Ugues (PhD), President of the Center for the Study of Democracy, who led the Question and Answer formatted lecture.

Through questions asked by Ugues such as “Can you describe a little about your desire to pursue a career in journalism?” and “Do you have any fear of reprisal from the Iranian State?”  Rezaian shared his story to a riveted audience. 

He began by talking about his childhood and why he became interested in journalism and covering Iran. Raised by an American mother and an Iranian father in San Francisco, he says he would see American news coverage of Iranians and was “Struck by the juxtaposition between how the Iranians were portrayed in the media and what I saw at home.” Gaining a passion for writing in college, he then went into a career in journalism and, when 25 years old, visited Iran for the first time. He explains that as his career progressed, he would go to Iran three or four times a year to cover a variety of events including “two presidential elections, Iran’s nuclear negotiations with global powers, the effects of one of the most punitive regimes in modern times, and environmental issue,” according to SMCM’s promotion of the event. However, he also covered more personal stories. As he explained, “I really just wanted to get below the surface of the society to show that while it’s very different from what we have here it is also similar.” These humanizing stories covered a variety of topics from baseball-loving men to the people who run an underground rehabilitation facility, breaking the law in order to help recovering addicts.

His situation changed, however, on July 22, 2014 when Iranian soldiers charged into his apartment in Tehran and took him and his wife captive, leading to 544 days of imprisonment.  Rezaian describes his imprisonment as occurring in three phases. During the first month, he explains that he had no knowledge of his wife or her status. During this time, he was kept for 35 days in solitary confinement, an experience which he describes in painful detail: “It’s designed to really cut you of from reality to make you malleable to make you like a scared animal and it really works…solitary confinement is a form of deprecation and torture is a form of depreavatoin and torture that should be outlawed internationally.” Following this month of confinement, he describes 13 months of imprisonment with a fellow Azberiajani inmate, with whom he did not share a common language. During this time, he was increasingly allowed contact with his wife, beginning at 4 minutes of phone time per week and later an hour visit per week.

While confined, Rezaian was a source of media focus internationally as his brother, mother, family worked to get him released. He jokingly said that, “It got to the point where anywhere the Iranian leaders traveled I was there.” However, this joke belies an international reality that he was the center of. He was finally released on Jan. 16 after a deal was made between the US and Iran.

Still writing for the Washington Post as a global opinions writer, Rezaian frequently covers other imprisoned journalists around the world. He has published the story of his experiences in the memoir “Prisoner.”

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