Iranian Journalist Released from U.S. Custody

On January 13, while boarding a flight at St. Louis Lambert International Airport, Marzieh Hashemi, an anchorwoman with Iran’s PressTV, was arrested and taken into custody by the FBI. Hashemi, an American-Iranian dual citizen living in Tehran, was in the U.S. working on a documentary and visiting family when she was detained.

The circumstances surrounding her arrest were initially unclear, which sparked outrage in Iran and around the world. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) issued a statement expressing concern over Hashemi’s arrest, calling on the Department of Justice to “immediately disclose the basis for her detention.”

On Friday, January 18, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia partially unsealed an order on Marzieh Hashemi, revealing that she was arrested on a material witness warrant. Under U.S. law, material witness warrants can be used to detain someone if his/her testimony is needed in an investigation or grand jury proceeding and he/she is a potential flight risk.

The order noted that Hashemi had been appointed an attorney and had not been accused of any crimes.

In light of this unsealed order, Hashemi’s friends and family issued an open letter calling for her release, saying she was “not accused of any crime and has cooperated with the judicial proceedings” and that “she does not pose a flight risk.”

After ten days in U.S. custody, Marzieh Hashemi was released following the completion of her testimony in front of a grand jury, according to another unsealed court order. The matter of the investigation to which Hashemi was a material witness has not been disclosed.

However, a U.S. government source told Reuters that the investigation is examining whether PressTV is a propaganda outlet that is operating without having registered as a foreign agent.

Press TV, Hashemi’s employer and an Iranian state-funded network, reported that Hashemi told her family from prison that she had been subjected to “violent and abusive treatment from the very onset.” The claims include being forced to remove her hijab and being offered only pork to eat, both of which are in violation of her religious practices.

The Department of Justice has not responded to these allegations.

Hashemi confirmed to The Guardian that she was forced to remove her hijab for her mugshot and that she did not eat for several days while her request for halal food was being processed. Additionally, Hashemi told RT, “No one ever read me my rights.”

She told The Guardian, “This is something that needs to be condemned across the table. It is not about me. It is about the U.S. Justice Department and government – that they feel that they can just take people’s rights away.”  

Even after release, Hashemi was fearful of further detainment, stating, “I was not comfortable as long as I was over U.S. airspace…It sounds like a movie but I lived through that movie so I know that anything is possible.”

Hashemi’s case is unique because it is the first case of the U.S. detaining a foreign journalist, specifically from a nation that is not an American ally. The U.S. has traditionally only jailed domestic journalists and only on the basis of being in contempt for refusing to disclose sources. Hashemi’s case does not pertain to disclosing sources but allegedly pertains to investigating the intentions of a foreign media outlet.

Hashemi’s status as a high profile foreign journalist may have significantly helped her case. The details surrounding material arrest warrants are rarely disclosed.

According to a 2005 joint report by the ACLU and Human Rights Watch, the material arrest law has historically been used “to secure the indefinite incarceration” of certain individuals, mainly Muslim men since 9/11. If it weren’t for the initial pushback from organizations, such as the CPJ, Hashemi’s case may have not gained as much coverage and may have instead remained under seal.

When reflecting on her treatment, Hashemi stated, “What I realize is how easy it is for them to make someone disappear…And I’m just wondering how many people that this happens to.”

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