After ten days of illegal detention, discriminatory degradation and targeted malice, United States Homeland Security finally released imprisoned journalist Marzieh Hashemi. How the 60-year-old was treated is not okay.
She had been filming a documentary on the Ferguson protests and the impact of the killing of Mike Brown, but was arrested on 13 January, detained and held for ten days.
Hashemi wears multiple crowns at once: she’s a Shi’ite, black, African-American-born, Tehran-based convert to Islam; she’s a journalist with an impressive pedigree in politics of societal and geopolitical influence.
The case generated a global awareness campaign. Marzieh, who was released by the day of the planned global day of protest, immediately broadcasted: “What happened to me can happen to anyone. It’s not about me Marzieh Hashemi, it’s about not allowing these illegal arrests and detention … it could have happened and I’m sure that it has happened to other people.”
Given that Marzieh’s case provides a harrowing snapshot into the dark side of American security institutions, here are five painful truths lying beneath her ordeal.
1. America has an institutional problem with Muslims
Both, the imposition and nature of Marzieh’s detention ask serious questions of her detainers. If she was a material witness to an active case, why wasn’t she simply subpoenaed to provide a testimony, instead of being arrested?
Marzieh suggested an answer. She is a high-profile practicing Muslim figure and her passport had already proven its worth in consistently welcoming random security checks. Even the basis for her arrest – that she was material witness to a criminal case (as per a partially unsealed court order) – has been disproportionately levied on Muslims post-9/11.
But its her treatment whilst incarcerated that exposes an Islamaphobic aversion. She was forced to remove her headscarf on numerous occasions, photographed without her hijab, strip searched, made to wear a short-sleeved shirt and denied a piece of cloth for the purpose of prayer, and so had to use a bedsheet. It’s no wonder this case spurred the #Handsoffourhijab campaign.
She was first denied non-halal food, given only a ham sandwich to eat, and when she refused, a halal alternative or even plain bread was off the table. She lived on crackers. It was days later that a near-frozen apple was placed before her.
Hashemi later reflected: “Just as America is aware of the harassment of the Black community by the police, America needs to start talking about the harassment of the Muslim community by the FBI.” The Grand Jury addressed Marzieh Hashemi as Melanie Franklin, her pre-legal-name-change birth name, facing a tactic well-worn out during the treatment of Malcolm X.
After the Khashoggi affair, it is odd that the threshold for how journalists are treated was so discriminately lowered for Hashemi. The same Hashemi whose house was raided in the Bush years; again by the FBI, and again without any charges. The FBI dislike Marzieh Hashemi enough to harass her but have too little substance to trump into actual criminal charges.
2. Another unsettling snapshot of the African-American experience
Hashemi’s treatment is also emblematic of the institutional struggle faced by black people in the US. It is telling that she had been filming in Ferguson; the location of explosive protests of police brutality and predicated on the killing of Michael Brown. She covered the story at the time and was back to gauge its impact, finding that subsequent activists had also died in questionable conditions. She was urged to check her laptop after release, in case the footage had been compromised.
She was profiled before she was individually considered; a 60-year-old grandmother of three on medication for hearth conditions, forcibly shackled and as she put it, “subjected to violent and abusive treatment from the very onset”.
She was further labelled a flight risk and on suicide watch, as a reward for the preservation of her voice, firmly embedding this case in the bulging literature of American civil rights abuses. As even Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif noted, all this transpired on the backdrop of the 50-year anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination.
It is the absence of criminal charges which paint a familiar portrait of the fear and uncertainty accompanying the African-American experience. In addition to the everyday normality of stop-and-searches and random airport checks, part of this experience is holding on to revelatory anecdotes exposing the most barefaced moments that racism pokes its head. For example, Hashemi remembers the day her teacher was instructed by PA to do a ‘black and white count’ of the class. Marzieh was the only black student from years 1 to 8.
3. Journalists should play by their own rules
“What they’re trying to do is to intimidate and to instil fear in each and every one of us. So that you don’t stand up for your rights. So that they can do whatever they want at any time.”
Marzieh Hashemi is a weathered journalist situated well outside of the mainstream. But reporting for Press TV, the Iranian broadcaster, should have little effect on her airport experience. Why does the content of her news report affect employees of a ‘freedom-supporting’ government? Why is Black Lives Matter a partisan phenomenon? Why, when American citizens document the misgivings of the government of their day, does the state bear hostility against them? Marzieh is courageous, but she shouldn’t have to stand her ground as a journalist whilst on home soil.
It was disheartening to watch the evolving mainstream coverage of Marzieh’s case. The Washington Post highlighted her flavour of journalism as accountable of her treatment. Organisations tasked with representing journalist often caveated their coverage with stories of foreign journalists’ treatment in Iran. Read ahead for this one.
4. The law shouldn’t operate at the whim of partisan politics
“I was kidnapped” Marzieh announced after her release, citing the uncertainty of her case and her fate. At various points during her ordeal, she feared extended jailtime, indefinite extension of the material witness basis and slipping through the cracks of the justice system; the cases of prisoner violence and death replayed on her mind. A weaker mind may have succumbed, but a weaker spirit than Marzieh Hashemi? There is none.
In recent years, the first amendment has been stretched and bruised by the justification offered for these cases of illegal detention, DNA extraction and inhumane living conditions. Legally, she should only have been summoned with this legal basis if the federal authorities judged she would not respond to a subpoena.
That would have been a different experience for Hashemi, who endured insensitive and aggressive lines of questioning during her three appearances before the Grand Jury in Washington DC. The impunity afforded to the FBI and prison officials in a case devoid of actual charges is excessive. No doubt a human rights case will arise either causally or indirectly from this case.
5. Ordinary citizens shouldn’t be weaponised in the war for the middle east
The elephant in the room is an uncomfortable truth – Marzieh Hashemi’s arrest was a message to her Iranian employers. Whether in retaliation or not, one sees in Hashemi a nonculpable hostage to a geopolitical conflict. It would be foolish to overlook Hashemi’s Iranian employment, residence and marriage when considering how she has been treated by a government that opens and shuts at the whim of Donald Trump. It is also possible that this is the language of the communication between the US and Iran; messages are otherwise transferred via Swiss diplomats.
Citizens, no less journalists, should not be weaponised when a nuclear deal breaks or when sanction imposition fluctuates. Being a frequent flyer to Tehran or converting to Islam post-Iranian Revolution do not self-impose a target on one’s back.
Marzieh was adamant that the undisclosed case was “related to where I live, and to what I do”, extracting Press TV from her arrest seems naïve. Iranian organisations and journalist associations led the way in raising awareness of her detention, though it was internationally embraced quite quickly, and no doubt it will now find its way in a file marking US-Iranian relations in the Trump era.
This won’t deter Marzieh Hashemi, however, who fully accepted that: “people like me always pay a price” and went on to deliver a blistering speech with no apologies, making her a credit to her race, occupation and religion.
Featured image | Tehran Rallies to demand the release of Iran’s Press TV news anchor Marzieh Hashemi | Newsmedia | wikimedia commons
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Best of Africa.
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