September 26, 2003 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 148

The Torture and Death of Canadian Photojournalist Zahra Kazemi At The Hands of Iran's Judicial Authority

September 26, 2003 | By A. Savyon*
Iran | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 148

On September 22, 2003, an agent of Iran's Intelligence Ministry was charged with the murder of Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi. Commenting on the arrest, a spokesman from the prosecutor's office said "The crime is attributed to one of the [Intelligence Ministry] interrogators," and added that no government body was involved. [1]

Kazemi, of Iranian origin, was arrested on June 23, 2003 after photographing and interviewing relatives of detainees arrested during riots in Tehran. Subsequently, she was beaten to death by members of the Judiciary, Iran's judicial authority. According to the London-based Arabic daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, top Judiciary officials, as well as officials close to Iran's Supreme Leader 'Ali Khamenei, had knowledge of Kazemi's torture.

Cause of Death: Torture by Judiciary Personnel

Following Kazemi's death, Al-Sharq Al-Awsat published a report from a knowledgeable Iranian source who said that a high-ranking official in the Judiciary knew the details of the "cruel torture" endured by Kazemi and that when they became known to him, he tried to shift culpability to the Intelligence Ministry.

The source also said that when the Judiciary official realized that Kazemi was dying at Evin prison because of the torture she endured after 48 hours of detainment, he ordered an aide to inform Deputy Intelligence Minister Mohammad Shafe'i that the Judiciary's intelligence unit had arrested an American spy and that "[the Intelligence Ministry] should come and take her away for further investigation."

According to the report, when Intelligence Ministry personnel reached Evin prison, they discovered that "the American spy was none other than a comatose Canadian journalist. One of the employees at the Judiciary official's office told Intelligence Ministry personnel that Kazemi had suffered a stroke during her interrogation. The source added that Intelligence Ministry personnel had called Deputy [Intelligence] Minister Shafe'i to report the situation to him, and he had told them to take her immediately to the hospital, where she underwent emergency surgery. The doctors who treated her found that her coma was the result of a direct blow at close range with a steel pipe or club. Burns and signs of blows were also found on her body, as was a spinal fracture."

One of the doctors told Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, "Kazemi was subjected to cruel torture which caused her coma, following a tear in the artery carrying blood to the head that was caused by a blow or blows to the head, and which caused a brief cessation of the flow of blood to her brain." [2] Kazemi's mother said that she noticed wounds on her daughter's body, but Iranian Health Minister Mas'ood Pezeshkian denied the mother's statements. He maintained that a wound under Kazemi's eye was caused by an injection in the hospital and that there were no other signs of wounds except for a wound to her head. [3]

The paper continued, "President Mohammad Khatami ordered the establishment of a special investigative committee, with the participation of the ministers of intelligence, Islamic guidance, and the interior, in addition to his deputy for parliamentary and judicial affairs, Mohammad Ali Abtahi, and his advisor for national security affairs, 'Ali Rabi'i, in order to investigate the circumstances of Kazemi's death, thus contradicting the claims of [Saeed] Mortazavi [now Iran's prosecutor-general and responsible for the closure of over 80 newspapers over the past three years] that she had died as a result of a stroke.

"On July 16, Abtahi announced, based on the report of the health minister and the forensic medicine department director, [the latter of whom] supervised the comprehensive autopsy of the body, that Kazemi had died as the result of a sharp blow to the head. Thus Abtahi exposed the crime committed by Iran's Judiciary."

Al-Sharq Al-Awsat added that the resignation of Judiciary head Mahmoud Hashemi (Shahroudi), formerly president of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and of other Judiciary officials such as Saeed Mortazavi, Abbas 'Ali 'Alizadeh, and Judge Haddad, had long been called for. The slogan "Purge the Judiciary of the Hashemi Mafia!" was predominant during the recent unrest. [4]

Prosecutor-General 'Knew Nothing' As Kazemi Was Being Tortured

In a special interview, a top Ministry of Islamic Guidance official told Al-Sharq Al-Awsat that Zahra Kazemi was known to them. "She visited Iran a number of times as a Canadian journalist, and went to Afghanistan and Iraq through Iran. When she arrived in Iran last June, she was issued a special journalist's permit after the Ministry of Islamic Guidance consulted with the Intelligence Ministry's journalism section." The official added, "Following last month's demonstrations, which Kazemi covered, we were informed one day that she was interviewing families of the detainees arrested during the recent events, who had organized a quiet demonstration in front of Evin prison."

The paper reported, "She knew the danger involved in photographing inside the prison, and so did not approach the prison walls, but only photographed relatives of the detainees and also interviewed some of them. The Ministry of Islamic Guidance source said that word of Kazemi's arrest by Judiciary intelligence officials reached the Ministry of Islamic Guidance hours after it occurred; Islamic Guidance Minister Ahmad Masjed Jameie informed President Khatami of what had happened to Kazemi, and Khatami ordered his aide Abtahi to monitor the matter. However, in the investigation, [Prosecutor-General Saeed] Mortazavi denied that he had had information on Kazemi's fate, even though Kazemi was at that time being tortured in the solitary confinement wing of Evin prison. After the comatose Kazemi was handed over to the Intelligence Ministry, the Judiciary official tried to absolve himself of responsibility by forcing the Ministry of Islamic Guidance's director of foreign broadcasts, Khoshvaqt, to issue a report that Kazemi had a stroke while being interrogated at the Intelligence Ministry. [5]

"The Iranian [Ministry of Islamic Guidance] official added that several hours after Kazemi's death was announced, the head of the Tehran Justice [Department] ordered that [her] body be buried in the Zahra Gardens cemetery in order to hush up the affair, after Kazemi's mother threatened to come to the prison to demonstrate her refusal to have her daughter buried in Iran. It is known that Kazemi's son Stephan Hachemi, who lives in Canada, asked that his mother's body be returned to Canada, where she had lived for the past 25 years."

Al-Sharq Al-Awsat further reported that Canada's ambassador to Iran threatened to suspend Canadian aid to Tehran and halt economic cooperation between the two countries as long as the mystery surrounding the circumstances of Kazemi's death remained. Canada has since recalled its ambassador.

Al-Sharq Al-Awsat also noted that Iranian Intelligence Minister Ali Younesi had ordered Kazemi's body exhumed and brought to the religious medical center. According to an eyewitness, Intelligence Ministry officials arrived at the Zahra Gardens cemetery a few minutes before Kazemi's burial by Judiciary intelligence officials. Intelligence and Judiciary officials then argued over who was entitled to determine what would happen to the body. Ultimately, Intelligence Ministry personnel took Kazemi's body by ambulance to the religious medical center, where an autopsy was performed. [6]

President Khatami's Government Responds

The London-based Arabic daily Al-Hayatreported that Iranian Health Minister Mas'ood Pezeshkian rejected Canada's demand that Kazemi's body be returned for an autopsy, claiming that Iran "has sufficient [capability] to examine the body and to determine the cause of death. We will not let any foreign entity investigate [the affair]." Interior Minister Musavi-Lari added that since Kazemi was an Iranian citizen, "Canada has no connection to the matter." [7]

The London-based Arabic daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi reported that the Khatami government cautioned conservatives regarding the ramifications of Kazemi's death and warned them against continuing actions such as arresting reformist journalists, authors, and liberal figures as well as closing newspapers and cultural centers. Khatami's deputy Abtahi said that the measures employed by conservatives were contributing to the U.S. effort to harm Iran's image internationally. [8]

*Ayelet Savyon is Director of the Iranian Media Project

[1] Associated Press, September 22, 2003.

[2] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), July 17, 2003.

[3] Aftab-e Yazd (Iran), July 21, 2003.

[4] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), July 17, 2003.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Al-Hayat (London), July 17, 2003.

[8] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), July 17, 2003.

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