American-born Iranian journalist arrested and held as material witness in grand jury case
Marzieh Hashemi, the American-born journalist working for Iranian state TV, was released last night, after being arrested last week and held for 10 days by the U.S. Department of Justice.
As NPR reports, Hashemi was held to testify in a grand jury case under the material witness statute, though no other details of the case have been released.
Hashemi was arrested on Jan. 13, 2019, and remained in jail for a week and a half, despite not being charged with a crime. The DOJ had previously refused to answer reporters questions about the details of Hashemi’s arrest and detainment. While the Justice Department contends federal law allows it to detain people as material witnesses who are a threat to flee the country, the constitutionality of the statute has been called into question by legal experts. As CBS News reported on Jan. 17:
The constitutionality of the material witness law has "never been meaningfully tested," said Ricardo J. Bascuas, a professor at the University of Miami School of Law. "The government only relies on it when they need a reason to arrest somebody but they don't have one."
The uncertainty around her detainment, including whether or not it had to do with her work as a journalist from Iranian state television, had press freedom groups in the U.S. and abroad speaking out.
In a statement earlier in the week, Reporters Without Borders condemned her detention without charge and the lack of transparency.
“The opaqueness surrounding her detention is unacceptable,” Reza Moini, the head of RSF’s Iran desk, said. “Marzieh Hashemi’s fundamental rights must be guaranteed.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists expressed similar sentiments, saying in a statement late last week: "We are concerned by the arrest of a journalist for Iranian state TV, Marzieh Hashemi, and call on the U.S. Department of Justice to immediately disclose the basis for her detention.”
Following Hashemi’s release, her family released a statement saying she would remain in Washington, D.C. for planned protests and that they still had grievances with her detention without charge.
We will update this post when more information becomes available, including whether or not Hashemi was explicitly targeted for her journalistic work, or whether it was unrelated.
Marzieh Hashemi told The Associated Press on Jan. 24, 2019, that while should could not provide details of the grand jury investigation under which she was detained as a material witness, she thinks she was held because of her work as a journalist, her belief system and as a warning to her to “watch your step.”
The AP detailed Hashemi’s account of her arrest:
"She was waiting to board a plane with her son in St. Louis, Missouri, on Jan. 13 after filming a Black Lives Matter documentary when she heard her name called. Hashemi went to the gate and was told she had been selected for pre-boarding, she said. As she was walking down a jet bridge with her son, she was stopped by two FBI agents who [told] her she had to come with them."
"You’re under arrest in connection with some investigation," Hashemi said an agent told her. In her interview with AP, she said she believes she was detained “because of my belief system, because of who I am.”
"I am a firm believer in truth and speaking out the truth. I believe in adding a voice to the voiceless, and there are times that this, of course, will contradict the policies of the powers that be. That’s a big part of it," she told the AP.
According to court documents reviewed by AP, Hashemi appeared before a judge four times, and questioned by prosecutors three times. Hashemi said that prosecutors only had circumstantial evidence, and not “anything of any concrete importance.”
AP also reported that Hashemi said her religious dietary restrictions were also not met for several days, and that she was forced to remove her hijab.
The Justice Department has not answered key questions about Hashemi’s detention, including whether or not Hashemi was targeted because of her work.