The Judge of Death | Episode 6 | Crooked Media
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October 12, 2021
544 Days
The Judge of Death | Episode 6
10 Episodes


In This Episode

Jason and Mary Rezaian face off against the ‘Judge of ‘Death’ just as the nuclear negotiations appear to be wrapping up. Will the deal include freeing Jason? If it doesn’t, what options does he have left? Featuring John Kerry, Wendy Sherman, Marty Baron and Carol Morello.



Jason Rezaian: Previously on 544 Days:


John Kerry: There was a big division within the government of Iran. There were those who were absolutely opposed to any negotiations at all with the so-called Great Satan.


Ali Rezaian: The deal could have not happened. So again, if it’s like, well, is there going to be a deal? Well, there can’t be a deal unless Jason gets out, well if the whole thing falls apart then, then Jason doesn’t get out.


[clip of Javad Zarif] Unfortunately, your friend and my friend, Jason, is accused of a very serious offense. And I hope that he’s cleared in a court, but he will have to face court.


Jason Rezaian: Six months after my arrest, the IRGC finally let me talk to an Iranian lawyer. My first and only meeting with her happened in the office of the judge in my case. He was sitting there with my case file open, listening during the entire session. At one point, the judge interrupted my conversation with my lawyer. Why are you bothering with all this? He asked. You already know I’m going to sentence your client to execution. Anyone covering Iran closely knows about Abolghassem Salavati. I’d been hearing about him for years. He’s the judge who presided over Iran’s most sensitive national security cases. Still does. But don’t be confused, that’s just propaganda-speak for show trials. Salavati is fearsome. Just consider the bullet points on his rap sheet. Human rights groups refer to him as the judge of death, or the hanging judge, for his prolific use of capital punishment. I know, I know. Sounds like some maniacal super villain. But that’s not exactly right. Throughout this whole ordeal, I had to answer a lot of very stupid questions from dudes who had very little experience of the world beyond their own twisted domain, guys whose whole ideology depended on not understanding things like a reporter e-mailing sources, or young people dancing to the song “Happy.” But without a doubt, Judge Salavati was the dumbest of them all.


Mary Rezaian: If I were to pick him out of a casting call, I would cast him as the thug rather than as the judge.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: That’s my mom, Mary Rezaian.


Mary Rezaian: I think he was chosen for that role because he looked fierce and could make a big show about being dangerous so people would be afraid.


Jason Rezaian: Were you afraid?


Mary Rezaian: I was not afraid.


Jason Rezaian: Were you afraid for me?


Mary Rezaian: You know, I had, I had reviewed all the various court cases that various other journalists and other people, dual nationals and others had gone through, and in my estimation, you were going to have to go through a court process, probably be convicted, maybe even be sentenced to death. And then it would be commuted by some higher Supreme Court.


Jason Rezaian: You can imagine that somebody listening to a mother saying, yeah, you know, I figured you were going to have to go to court and I figured I’d probably get convicted and you might even get the death penalty, but, you know, I wasn’t that worried—you’re going to need to explain that a little bit.


Mary Rezaian: OK. Well, I realize, I had 50 years of living with Iranians and also watching what the process was. Several people were reminding me that, Mary, the verdict is already in. There hasn’t been a trial yet, but the verdict is already in. So we have to go through this process to get to the other side.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: By now, you’ve probably figured out that Mary Rezaian does not scare so easily, but “going through the process and getting to the other side,” for a guy who’s being held incommunicado in an Iranian prison—that felt pretty fucking precarious. And at the same time, I knew the nuclear talks were heating up. If, the US and Iran signed a deal and I wasn’t a part of it, I might be up shit’s creek. I’m Jason Rezaian, and this is 544 Days. Episode 6: My Trial, the nuclear deal and the puzzle of whether either of those things could lead to my freedom, or leave me in prison for the rest of my life,


Carol Morello: I was beginning to fear that you would ever get out.


Dave Bowker: It was a sham trial from the start.


Wendy Sherman: If you can’t do it, you can’t do it. Go back and get more instructions, or just say it can’t happen.


Mary Rezaian: I’m thinking, holy shit, these guys are in a pretty bad way if they’re asking me to help them pull off this trade.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: With my trial looming, Brett McGurk was deep in talks with the Iranian intelligence services. Remember, in their first meeting back in December of 2014, the Iranian negotiators put an offer on the table: a prisoner swap, like the U.S. and Soviet Union used to do during the Cold War.


Brett McGurk: They said they’re open to a prisoner exchange and they dropped a stack of, I think it was every Iranian, Iranian-American, anyone who had any relationship with Iran in any way, in our prisons—from armed robbers to sanctions violators to anything. And they wanted them all released. So that was their opening quasi offer, which was completely ridiculous.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: It was ridiculous because some of these Iranians had been convicted of serious crimes, including violent ones, and they’ve been given lawyers and due process in the U.S. justice system. It’s by no means a perfect system, but their cases were nothing like what I was facing.


Brett McGurk: We left that first day with a kind of stack of names that they had given us. Most of the names on the, on their stack were totally unacceptable. So we had to think about what to do with that or even if it was worth having a follow-up at that point.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: Their opening offer may have seemed way off base to McGurk, but the Iranians were confident that he’d come back with a counteroffer and they were patient. Having grown up around Persian drug dealers, I can tell you that any negotiation with Iranians requires flexibility, and time. My mom knew that, too, or at least it became clear while she was in Tehran. After I got to see her on Christmas, she was allowed to visit me once more on New Year’s Day. But then the next week, she left Iran.


Mary Rezaian: I left because I went to see the media judge, the first judge you were dealing with, and he made it very clear to me that I was not going to be able to see you again until your trial started. So I went back to my Istanbul place with the full expectation that I would be back there by mid-February. But as it was, they kept postponing your trial. And so months went by.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: From Istanbul, mom stayed in constant contact with Yegi, who kept her updated on what little information was coming from the judicial system. Over the next few months, though, Yegi kept pushing my mom to come back to Iran.


Yegi Rezaian: Based on Islamic law, mothers have more rights than wives. Like wives gets screwed from all angles. When they want to take you to prison, they take you with your wife. But when it comes to rights, you have like zero rights.


Jason Rezaian: Did you kind of press for, for her to stay or come back?


Yegi Rezaian: Definitely. I pressed her. I don’t know if she has told you or not, I pressed her so hard that she had to come back. And I understood the situation wasn’t easy. Like for months and months, being in hotel room or at my parents’ apartment. It was very uncomfortable. I have no doubt about it.


Mary Rezaian: Throughout the time I was away, I was in contact with Yegi and she was telling me how miserable you were and how you were not eating and the various illnesses that you were dealing with that they were not treating. And so I was, I was quite concerned. We all were. She also said your teeth were turning black. And so, [laughs] I don’t know what I was expecting to find.


Jason Rezaian: Were my teeth black?


Mary Rezaian: Your teeth were not black. That was part of the exaggeration, based on, you know, extreme love and concern.


Jason Rezaian: Yeah.


Mary Rezaian: And you had said the Yegi, you said, I want my mom to be there when I walk out of prison. I want her there holding my hand when I walk out of prison. So . . .


Jason Rezaian: I think she made that up. That’s also part of that exaggeration and deception. But it sounded great.


Mary Rezaian: Oh really! It sounded great.


Jason Rezaian: I don’t remember ever saying I want to hold my mom’s hand. I mean, but maybe. I mean, it worked. As long as it worked, it worked.


Mary Rezaian: It worked. It worked.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: My mom returned to Tehran in early May 2015. Once the authorities realized she was back in town, they called her to another meeting with the guys wearing black, the IRGC. And this time they had a request for her.


Mary Rezaian: They said to me, please speak to Secretary of State Kerry or Mrs. Kerry or Wendy Sherman, and ask them to make a trade for you. And that just about knocked me off my chair. I was not expecting that. I mean, I was really surprised. And I looked at them and I said, I can’t do that. I’m just a private citizen. You know, I can’t just pick up the phone and, and talk to Secretary of State Kerry and . . .


Jason Rezaian: Yeah, he picks up the phone, calls you.


Mary Rezaian: Yeah. Well, I didn’t tell them that. They probably knew it. I’m thinking, holy shit, these guys are in a pretty bad way if all of a sudden they’re asking me to help them pull off this trade. So then they said, well, OK, so you’re not going to make that call. Then would you write a letter to our commander saying that I was not willing or able to be in contact with Secretary Kerry or Wendy Sherman to ask for a trade for you.


Jason Rezaian: Amateur hour at the Apollo?


Mary Rezaian: Well, that’s how it felt to me, while I was sitting in that chair. And then I said: no, no, I don’t want to write a letter. And then maybe I felt sorry for them because I said: and I don’t have my glasses with me. So then they, you know, I was ushered out and that was, that was the end of that.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: They let her in Yegi start visiting me again. But ever since I’d gotten caught trying to pass Yegi a note months earlier, there were new policies in place. Now we had a thick pane of glass separating us in an old telephone receiver to talk through, just like in the movies.


Mary Rezaian: And Yegi and I would have to take turns passing the telephone back and forth. You were telling me, look, mom, this has gone on so long and I need this to end. And it was unfair and they were putting pressure on you to admit and confess.


Jason Rezaian: To what?


Mary Rezaian: To being a super spy.


Yegi Rezaian: Every time we came and visited you, I helped her take a lot of notes, with all the details that we experienced that day, we were told, we saw, everything. And then communicate those to either your brother or to Washington Post people or to friends, family, those people that you wanted them to write about you. But also she and I wrote like two or three hundred different letters to different offices. Every evening, she and I would come up with the text, both English and Farsi, and then we’d find different addresses: Iran’s human rights office, foreign ministry, presidential office—I mean, the, yeah, everyone.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: Another part of the effort, my mom went to see Salavati, the judge of death.


Mary Rezaian: His court is in a large judicial building. And in order to get in to see him, first of all, he had to give permission. We’d be sitting downstairs waiting for the approval by phone to come upstairs.


Jason Rezaian: And how many times do you think you saw him?


Mary Rezaian: Probably between five and seven. Judge Salavati is a very ferocious looking person. Initially, he was gruff, but also kind of curious about this American. I probably was one of the few Americans that he’d ever met. And as time went by, it became more—I don’t want to say cordial, but more familiar. So that at the end he was calling me Mary Jaan. Which [laughs] is very strange. You have to know that for Iranians, when they attach either jaan or joon to the end of the name, it means dear or beloved. So for the judge to be calling me Mary Jaan [laughs] was totally weird.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: Mom was getting on the good side of the judge of death. But on the issues that mattered, he wouldn’t budge: no bail, no increase in phone calls or family visits, no promise of a speedy trial. Meanwhile, the court had finally given me access to a lawyer, the one I mentioned at the beginning of the episode, she was a human rights attorney who was doing her best within a system that’s obviously rigged against the kind of clients she represents, people like me.


Mary Rezaian: She seemed courageous and clear about her understanding of the law and what rights you had. And, you know, she was willing to march into Salavati’s office or to the various ministries and so forth.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: The Washington Post had hired a team of D.C. lawyers to work on my case, Dave Bowker was one of them.


Dave Bowker: Because of Iranian law, she’s not able to take advice from lawyers outside of Iran. But we looked carefully at your case and we made our views generally known.


Jason Rezaian: Can you talk about those conversations, about passing on to her what you expected would be thrown at me in court?


Dave Bowker: Yeah, we had to be really careful about how we did that because we didn’t want to put her in any jeopardy. We shared with the family how we would litigate such a case here.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: Dave couldn’t talk directly with my Iranian lawyer, but my family could. So he passed advice about how to defend me through them.


Dave Bowker: We were making arguments not just for the judge, but for everyone else who was involved to make sure that they understood how preposterous these allegations really were. When we did make these arguments to any audience in Iran, you know, there is a, I don’t know, maybe a big sigh like, oh, if only you knew, how little this really matters in the trial.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: So maybe the verdict was set, but other countries that still had diplomatic ties with Iran would be watching. Dave and his colleagues were lobbying those governments to bring up my case every time they met with Iranian officials. At 8:00 a.m. on May 25th, 2015, I was told to get dressed because my trial was about to start. My usual IRGC chaperons drove me to Salavati courtroom in the center of Tehran. My mom and Yegi showed up too.


Mary Rezaian: We got there early. Now, this building, you would go in, you would leave your phones and you would enter a large waiting room with perhaps sixty chairs and a big screen TV. We didn’t know if we would be able to attend the trial. So when we arrived, we were told to wait, and this big screen TV that particular day was showing Dances with Wolves.


[clip of Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves] I’ve always wanted to see the frontier.


[clip from Dances with Wolves] You want to see the frontier?


[clip of Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves] Yes, sir. Before it’s gone.


Jason Rezaian: So I’ve never watched Dances with Wolves. There’s two things I know about it. It’s got Kevin Costner, who I’m not a fan of. And uh—


Mary Rezaian: It’s got a lot of buffaloes. Lots of buffaloes.


Jason Rezaian: And it’s fucking long.


Carol Morello: It’s fucking long.


[clip of Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves] I become a target, and a target makes a poor impression. I am through waiting.


Mary Rezaian: We watch it in its entirety. And then it went to some other nature program, without being called up to the trial.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: Yegi and my mom weren’t the only people sitting in that waiting room. You didn’t actually think I was the only guy on trial at the Revolutionary Court, did you?


Mary Rezaian: So there’d be a whole families waiting for their relatives who were defendants in other courts. And one woman came down and she said: voy, voy, you should see that new court number 15, there’s TV cameras and they’re all these photographers standing around—there must be a very important trial going on. Yegi and I just looked at each other and yeah, we know.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: Mom and Yegi were stuck in the waiting room. They were shut out of my trial. Inside the courtroom looked like a nondescript government office, except for the absurdly threatening emblem of Iran’s judiciary: the scales of justice balanced on a sword. The two cameras at the front of the room told me that this trial was going to be a made-for-Iranian-state-TV event. My only goal was to make sure it didn’t go according to their script. That’s coming up right after this.




Jason Rezaian, narrating: The courtroom filled up with a lot of bearded guys. Then Judge Salavati came in and I asked for permission to approach the bench. I wanted to ask him face to face to let me out on bail, to see my wife more often—anything that could improve my situation. Salavati shook my hand. Then he nodded at the cameras and said, “Look at what a headache you’ve made for me.” Headache for you? I asked him. “I’ve been in prison for a year for doing absolutely nothing.” He didn’t answer. The bailiff nudged me back to my seat. Then Salavati read the charges against me. I was being accused of collecting classified information and spreading anti-regime propaganda. The whole thing was a watered-down, less combative version of my interrogations, the same leading questions about how I was a CIA operative using the cover of being a journalist. By this point, I had rehearsed my answers to these questions so many times that they were automatic: I hadn’t committed any crimes; I’d been a journalist; all the information I reported was public; I’d never spied or conspired with spies. It wasn’t difficult to refute their arguments, but I also knew it didn’t really matter. I was defending myself, for myself.


[clip of Robert Siegel] Jason Rezaian, who holds both U.S. and Iranian citizenship, went on trial today, charged with espionage. His trial is being held behind closed doors.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: My editor at The Washington Post, Doug Jehl, went on NPR to talk about the first day of my trial.


Doug Jehl: What happened was a proceeding behind closed doors that lasted about two hours that involved the judge reading the charges against Jason to Jason and to his lawyer and to virtually no one else. Those who were shut out included his wife, Yegi, his mother, Mary, who’s been in Tehran trying to attend the trial, as well as The Washington Post. We’d sought a visa that would have allowed us to be there. Those requests were unanswered.


Dave Bowker: It was a sham trial from the start.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: That’s Dave Bowker again, one of my American lawyers.


Dave Bowker: We were getting really detailed reports of what was going on. And we didn’t like the way it sounded and really felt for you.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: Officially, my trial was supposed to take place over the course of a week. My first trial date was late May, but then the second didn’t come until early June. Third in July. And still no verdict.


Dave Bowker: And what I remember so well is that the trial dates came out of nowhere and basically tracked developments in the nuclear negotiations. And every time there was a big development in your case or any big public announcement about your case, it coincided with some impasse in the negotiations. And it really did feel like the Iranians were just tightening the screws in your case in order to kind of get the US negotiators to relent on certain issues. It was like there was this massive hurricane of geopolitical forces and your case was whirling around in the eye of that storm.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: And so as intense as the trial was for me, it was just a subplot in this bigger story of the nuclear talks. And that deal was hitting some serious headwinds.


[news clip] Close, but still no deal. That is the message from Vienna, where more foreign ministers. . .


[clip of John Kerry] We have never been closer. At this point, this negotiation could go either way.


[news clip] Obama threatening to pull the plug on the Iran nuclear deal as that deadline is pushed back.


[clip of President Obama] I will walk away from the negotiations if, in fact, it’s a bad deal.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: Wendy Sherman was leading those talks on the other side, and to her they felt incredibly fragile.


Jason Rezaian: Were there times when you thought the negotiations were going to fall apart?


Wendy Sherman: Absolutely. Of course. Of course. I know that you’ve probably heard the story of I was in Geneva, Zarif was already there. I’d met with him. John Kerry was in London, was coming our way.


John Finer: Wendy Sherman called Secretary Kerry and I in Secretary Kerry’s hotel room to report that the Iranians had moved backwards on a whole range of positions that we thought they had taken in the prior talks.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: This was back in February of 2015. John Kerry’s Chief of Staff, John Finer, was with the Secretary of State.


Wendy Sherman: I called Kerry and I said, “I’m not sure you should come, we haven’t made the progress that you wanted us to.”


John Finer: And Secretary Kerry said to Wendy: tell them I’m not coming;  I think you should tell them that if this is where they are, there is no value in my getting on a plane and flying out there, the end.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: The pressure worked that time and Kerry ended up going to Geneva.


John Finer: There was another time when we were in Lausanne, which is where a long swath of the negotiations took place, where we had thought one night that Iran had made a series of what we considered to be concessions that would allow us to move forward on a piece of the deal. The next morning, conversations started, the negotiations resumed, and it was as if the night before this conversation had never taken place. At some point later in that day, Secretary Kerry walked himself by Foreign Minister Zarif’s room.


Wendy Sherman: Secretary Kerry went to Zarif’s room and said: you know, if you can’t do it, you can’t do it; either get back, go back and get more instructions, or just say it can’t happen.


John Finer: There was a final time when we were actually in Vienna at the very end game of the nuclear talks when Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Zarif were shouting at each other so loud in a dining room that Secretary Kerry’s kind of main sort of personal aide had to walk in and say, like the whole room next door can hear you guys shouting at each other.


John Kerry: Even up until the last week, there were big hurdles to get over and it was always obviously a little bit of a dance.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: That’s John Kerry.


John Kerry: If you negotiated before, you know something about those kinds of negotiations, you know, there’s always the anticipatable last minute, quote, “glitches” that aren’t so much glitches as a negotiating strategy. So we had a pretty good sense of, um,  of caution, if you will.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: Sherman and the other diplomats holed up in the Palais Coburg for a month, trying to finalize the last details. Then on July 14th, they announced a deal.


[news clip] A landmark deal signed in Vienna. But reactions from governments across the world have differed greatly.


[voice clip] Is a practical, realistic deal.


[news clip] An agreement to curtail Iran’s nuclear program hammered out at a negotiating table instead of on a battlefield.


[clip of President Obama] This deal demonstrates that American diplomacy can bring about real and meaningful change, change that makes our country and the world safer and more secure.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: It was huge news, but guess what wasn’t in the deal? There was no mention of me, the other American hostages. And my trial was still dragging on.


[clip of Marty Baron] The nuclear negotiations that recently concluded have, sadly, provided no resolution to Jason’s case.


[clip of Joe Scarborough] How do we get them home? How do we make deals with a country that depends, that depends in large part in trust, that actually seized our journalists and don’t let them come home? It’s shocking.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: I should have been reporting on this story. Instead, I’d been edited out of it. At least that’s what it seemed like to me.


Carol Morello: I was beginning to despair that you would ever get out.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: That’s Carol Morello, The Washington Post reporter who was covering my case.


Carol Morello: Things just seem to be getting worse for you. And I really, I sensed no urgency by the Iranians in letting you free. Some time, not that long before the Iran deal was actually struck, I was speaking with the head of the North America desk for, from the Iranian foreign minister, and he was complaining that coverage of Iran had taken a turn for the worse and gotten much more critical. And I said: well, I’ve written some of those stories, what are you talking about specifically? And he sort of dodged that question. But he said to me, he goes, you need to come to Iran and see what it’s like. You need to come and report from there yourself. And I told him, I said: well, actually, I have reported there in the past, but I will point out that we already have a reporter in Iran, he just hasn’t been able to write for more than a year. And suddenly he remembered something he had to do and left. But I saw and heard nothing from the Iranians to suggest that there was a chance you were going to get out any time soon.


Jason Rezaian: So you didn’t see my situation as necessarily linked with the deal.


Carol Morello: I, I thought it could have been, I thought it should have been. I knew they were talking about you, but they were always talking about you on the sidelines . . . of the deal. They were not making you part of the talks. And so I thought it was entirely possible, maybe even likely, that this deal would be concluded and you and the other Americans who were in prison there would still be in Evin prison.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: From where I sat, it was impossible not to feel betrayed. Those talks seem like my best hope of getting out of this shit hole. Now that the ink was dry on that deal, it looked very much like the U.S. government had decided against saving me. But then at the White House, something happened that showed my family and friends I hadn’t been forgotten, not even by President Obama.


[clip of President Obama] Good afternoon, everybody.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: The day after the deal was signed, Obama held a press conference.


[clip of President Obama] Yesterday was a historic day.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: And Major Garrett of CBS News asked a question about me and the other hostages.


[clip of Major Garrett] Can you tell the country, sir, why you are content with all the fanfare around this deal, to leave the conscience of this nation, the strength of this nation, unaccounted for in relation to these four Americans? Could you comment?


[clip of President Obama] I got to give you credit, Major, for how you craft those, those questions. The notion that I’m content as I celebrate with American citizens languishing in Iranian jails—Major, that, that’s nonsense. And you should know better. I’ve met with the families of some of those folks. Nobody’s content. And our diplomats and our teams are working diligently to try to get them out.


Ben Rhodes: Well, I remember Obama was really angry at the Major Garrett question.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: That’s Ben Rhodes, one of Obama’s closest advisers.


Ben Rhodes: You know, even kind of pulled me aside after, you know, did you see that? You know, God, that’s such bullshit. But I think what Obama is reflecting is the frustration of being in government and you’re, you’re really trying to solve the problem. You know? And we believe deeply that the nuclear deal is actually going to be helpful to solving the problem, and to have your kind of motivation questioned, that you don’t care about this—that was a massive trigger for Obama. And I’ve rarely seen him as angry at a question from a reporter from the way that he was when Major Garrett phrased that question.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: In retrospect, that exchange demonstrated just how tense it was for everyone working on my case. So much of their work was being done in secret, but they also had a responsibility to my family, and to the American people, to be transparent. Not only to promise they were doing their best to free me, but to prove they could deliver. Bottom line, I felt left behind. My mom had said I’d have to go through this process to get to the other side, but what if the process was never ending and there was no other side? Coming up on 544 Days, things have to get worse before they can get better.


Marty Baron: And then there were these statements being made by Iranian political figures that seem to suggest that maybe he could not only be imprisoned, but that he could be executed.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: And Brett McGurk starts to feel the pressure from the White House.


Brett McGurk: And I’m walking out of the Situation Room and Susan came up to me and she, like, grabbed me by my suit jacket and said: go get this done.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: That’s next time on 544 Days.