The University of Michigan’s Wallace House held an event titled “Prisoner: My 544 Days in an Iranian Prison” on Tuesday in the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre. The event featured Jason Rezaian, a Global Opinions writer for The Washington Post, to discuss his new book “Prisoner,” which describes his 18-month experience in an Iranian prison.
“Prisoner” chronicles Rezaian’s time spent in Evin, an Iranian prison, known for its poor conditions and its housing of the country’s political prisoners. During the event, Bill McCarren, executive director of the National Press Club, a professional organization for journalists, explained how the book also highlights the people and culture of Iran, as well as issues with freedom of the press globally.
“I think it will change what you think about the region,” McCarren said. “It will change what you think about Iran and it will change what you think about journalism.”
The majority of the event was a Q&A session between McCarren and Rezaian. After anecdotes about Rezaian’s interests in sports, the two dove into questions about Rezaian’s imprisonment experience in a country he called home for several years of his life.
Rezaian was born in the U.S. to an Iranian father and grew up in California before moving to Iran for part of his adult life to pursue journalism. From 2012 through 2016, Rezaian served in Iran as the Tehran bureau chief for The Washington Post.
In July 2014, Rezaian and his wife, Yeganeh Rezaian, were in their home in Iran, getting ready to attend his mother’s birthday party. After entering the elevator, the journalist was confronted at gunpoint by a member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Rezaian described how after having his apartment ransacked, the IRGC took the couple into custody. Yeganeh remained in prison for 72 days and Rezaian remained in prison for 544 days.
“I’m glad that my experience ended after 544 days,” Rezaian said. “At the same time, this should have never happened in the first place. But I realize it could’ve been much worse.”
During the event and as described in his book, Rezaian explained he was imprisoned at the start of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, an agreement between Iran and the P5+1 (China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, United States and Germany) regarding the Iranian nuclear program. In an interview with U.S. News, Rezaian described how because he was taken by the IRGC, who did not want the Iran deal to continue, he quickly became a part of the negotiations.
“So I see my arrest in that context,” Rezaian said in the U.S. News interview. “As an attempt by internal forces in the country to make problems for the (President) Hassan Rouhani administration at the time when they were engaged in these negotiations with world powers including the United States.”
Rezaian said during his imprisonment his interrogators attempted to get him to admit to espionage. Though he found it difficult, Rezaian said he never admitted to this crime, which he did not commit. McCarren commended him for holding his ground in the high-pressure environment.
“You’re not the first journalist to be held in prison,” McCarren said. “But there seemed to be a pattern where journalists could be released if they would state that a charge was real, even if it seemed like no one had believed the charges. You didn’t do that, you stood your ground … I'm part of the journalism community and as a journalist, I was incredibly proud that you would do that.”
LSA senior Olivia Abedi described to The Daily after the event how valuable she believed Rezaian’s actions against pleading guilty were, especially for students.
“In cases like these, staying true to yourself and what you’re doing ring through,” Abedi said. “The fact that Jason never plead guilty to make things easier on himself was a good thing I think for all students and anybody to understand.”
McCarren and the National Press Club, as well as the general spread in media awareness of Rezaian’s situation, contributed greatly to the release of Rezaian. Lynette Clemetson, director of Wallace House, described the organization’s vast efforts toward Rezaian’s case.
“Bill and his colleagues at the National Press Club fought tirelessly for Jason’s release, even at one point holding a read-a-thon where they read Jason’s work for 24 hours in shifts,” Clemetson said. “They made sure that Jason’s name stayed in the news and that his story stayed in the news and that pressure stayed on the officials who needed to take getting him out of there seriously.”
The conversation between McCarren and Rezaian ended with a discussion on Anthony Bourdain, who not only made an episode of his CNN show “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” about Iran and Rezaian, advocating on his behalf while Rezaian was in prison, but also published Rezaian’s book. Rezaian described his profound gratitude for the late journalist.
“I think for Yeganeh and me, he’s our champion,” Rezaian said. “Lots of people had seen the episode of ‘Parts Unknown’ that we were on, some people know that he was a big and vocal advocate for us when we were in prison, but after we were released, he became a friend, and he was an incredible source of advice and inspiration.”
The formal event ended with recognition of Emilio Gutiérrez Soto, a Mexican journalist in the University’s Knight-Wallace Fellowship program. Gutiérrez was recently denied asylum in the U.S., despite his fear for his safety upon returning to Mexico because of his reporting on crimes committed by members of the military in Chihuahua, Mexico.
At the event, McCarren welcomed Gutiérrez onto the stage and presented him with an honorary membership to the National Press Club, created for honoring outstanding journalists. An emotional Gutiérrez stood before a standing ovation from the audience as he received the recognition.
“We have never extended this honor to an international journalist, someone who is not a U.S. citizen, and we want to do that today for Emilio Gutiérrez,” McCarren said while presenting the membership. “We want him to be one of our group, and to be one of that special group within our group.”
Abedi described the importance of students learning about different cultures through the experiences of journalists such as Gutiérrez and Rezaian, and how understanding these experiences can help spread awareness globally.
“It’s important to highlight the different parts of the world you may not understand,” Abedi said. “For instance, I think Iran is a beautiful country. I’ve been there, I love so many parts of Iranian culture, but unfortunately, the government and the treatment of its citizens isn’t always just. I think it’s important for students to see the inner workings of other countries and firsthand accounts of what people have done in order to raise awareness throughout the world.”
Correction: This article has been updated to clarify one of McCarren's quotes.