Freed Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian says his Iranian captors told him the newspaper did not exist and no one knew of his predicament.
Rezaian, who was imprisoned by Iran for 545 days, was welcomed home Thursday by his newsroom colleagues and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at the Post's new headquarters not far from the White House in downtown Washington.
Rezaian occasionally struggled for composure as he told his story. “For much of the 18 months I was in prison, my Iranian interrogators told me The Washington Post did not exist, that no one knew of my plight, that the U.S. government would not lift a finger for my release,” the former Tehran bureau chief told a cheering throng. “Today I am in this room with the very people who helped prove the Iranians wrong.”
WATCH: Video of Rezaian, Kerry
The 39-year-old Rezaian said it was "truly humbling" that so many people, including U.S. government officials, journalists and his relatives and friends fought for so long to get Iran to release him. “No other country would do so much for an ordinary citizen, and I know that,” he said.
Rezaian was accompanied by his wife, Yeganeh Salehi, his brother Ali, and their mother, Mary Rezaian.
An Iranian court convicted him of espionage, but neither the nature of the charges against him nor his sentence was ever publicly disclosed.
"A week ago on Saturday, was one of the days I enjoyed the most as secretary of state,” said Kerry, referring to the day when Rezaian was released.
For months, the newspaper and the U.S. government protested his detention, but he was not freed until January 16, the same day the United States and five other world powers implemented an agreement with Tehran curbing its ability to build a nuclear weapon in exchange for lifting sanctions that have hobbled the Iranian economy.
Four other Americans were also released at the same time, while the U.S. freed seven Iranians who had been convicted or accused of violating the trade sanctions.
"This is particularly sweet for everyone for Jason to be home," an emotional Kerry said. "This gnawed at us because we knew the consequences" of his jailing.
Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian (R) is greeted by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at the grand opening of the Washington Post newsroom in Washington, Jan. 28, 2016.
'Reporting the truth is not a crime'
“To those who try to intimidate or imprison reporters, we need to stand up and say committing journalism and reporting on the truth is not a crime,” said Kerry, while voicing concerns over challenges faced by many journalists around the world including those reporting from war zones.
He added the State Department and United States Agency for International Development are sponsoring programs to support independent media in more than 30 countries.
As the newspaper officially dedicated its new building, Kerry extolled the virtue of a free and independent media presence in democratic countries.
Kerry said that 71 journalists were killed last year because of their profession and the work they did, with another 200 jailed by repressive governments.
"No government...can clearly call itself great," Kerry said, "if it doesn't allow freedom of expression. A country without a free and independent press has nothing to brag about."