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Iranian American journalist, who was held in Iran's Evin prison, on its fire

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Iran's Evin Prison is notorious for holding dissidents and political prisoners, including American nationals and people arrested during the recent anti-government protests over women's rights. Evin caught fire over the weekend. We still don't have full details, but Iran's state media reported at least eight people dead. Washington Post columnist Jason Rezaian was held in Evin after a secret trial in Iran in 2015. The Post called it a sham trial. He was there for more than a year, often in solitary confinement, before being released as part of a prisoner exchange linked to a nuclear agreement. And he's with us today. Jason, welcome.

JASON REZAIAN: Thanks so much for having me on, Sacha.

PFEIFFER: Jason, as someone who has spent time in Evin, what did you think when you heard the news and saw the videos of the prison in flames?

REZAIAN: Well, the first thought was for the safety and well-being of those people who are in the prison right now. You know, safety is not the No. 1 priority of those who administrate it - but at the same time, a feeling of exhilaration because it's a clear crack in the Islamic Republic's hold on power. As I wrote in a column that published today, prison fires don't happen in places where authorities have everything under control.

PFEIFFER: You mentioned that safety is not a priority there. Could you give us a visual of what this prison looks like? Is it urban? Is it remote? What are the cells like? What's the layout?

REZAIAN: Evin is on the northern outskirts of Tehran. It butts up against a residential neighborhood. There's streams running around it. It's one of the lusher parts of Tehran. And there are thousands upon thousands of people who are kept in there at any given time. I believe the facility is intended to hold up to 15,000 people.

PFEIFFER: Oh, it's huge.

REZAIAN: It's huge. And there are different sections of it that are under the control of different parts of the system. So, you know, there are sections of the prison that are under the control of the police - so, you know, people who are arrested for violence or drunk driving, that sort of thing. And then there are wings of the prison where political prisoners are held. And one in particular, which is called Section 2A, a section that's under the complete control of the Islamic Republic Revolutionary Guard Corps, where I and just about every other high-profile case of a foreign national that you've heard of in recent years spent their time.

PFEIFFER: How primitive is the place? How primitive are the cells?

REZAIAN: Well, for the first 49 days I was there, I was in solitary confinement in a cell that was about 4 1/2 by 8 1/2 feet. There was no furniture. There was sort of a cut piece of carpeting on the floor. I had two very rough blankets, one that I used to cover myself, one I used as a pillow, lights - fluorescent lights on 24 hours a day, a bathroom stall, you know, a floor toilet hole in the ground. I was subjected to long, long interrogation sessions. I spent most of my time outside of my cell - all of my time, in fact, outside of my cell blindfolded. I was deprived of medical attention. During those first seven weeks in solitary confinement, I lost 40 pounds. I still suffer from some undefined respiratory ailments that I picked up while I was in Evin. I was threatened with dismemberment and execution on a daily basis. I was deprived legal representation - yeah, a pretty stark place.

PFEIFFER: The current protests in Iran, as you know, were prompted by a young woman who died in custody after she was arrested for showing her hair in public - too much hair in public. In your view, what, if anything, should the international community be doing about what's happening in Iran now?

REZAIAN: First of all, I think that the rules about the compulsory hijab in Iran have always been enforced in an arbitrary way, which is a first indication that they're illegitimate. Iran is effectively a gender apartheid state and has been since the inception of the Islamic Republic in 1979. And there's always been a movement by women to get their rights back. And I think that what we've seen over the last month is the biggest manifestation of Iranian women saying, we've had enough. I think we need to continue to say that all people, all genders, all ethnicities, all religions are equal and have to be equal under the law in all countries. And if they're not, there's going to be consequences.

PFEIFFER: But Iran is far from a democracy. So do you think international disapproval and public protest make any difference?

REZAIAN: Look. In societies where there's authoritarian rule like this, public opinion still matters. So, you know, Iranian leaders like to say that they don't respond to pressure. I would submit that they only respond to pressure.

PFEIFFER: Jason Rezaian is a columnist for The Washington Post. His podcast about his time in Evin prison is called "544 Days." Jason, good to talk to you.

REZAIAN: Thank you, Sacha.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Linah Mohammad
Prior to joining NPR in 2022, Mohammad was a producer on The Washington Post's daily flagship podcast Post Reports, where her work was recognized by multiple awards. She was honored with a Peabody award for her work on an episode on the life of George Floyd.
Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.