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Iran: Tehran Says Canadian Photojournalist Died As Result Of Beatings

  • Charles Recknagel

Tehran's surprise announcement today that Canadian news photographer Zahra Kazemi died of beatings comes just days after the government announced it would investigate the circumstances of the photojournalist's death. Earlier, the government had said that Kazemi, who was arrested while working in Tehran, had died of an unspecified "brain attack." But a major diplomatic row with Ottawa forced Tehran to revisit the case.

Prague, 16 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- After days of tension between Tehran and Ottawa over the death of Canadian news photographer Zahra Kazemi, Iranian Vice President Mohammad Ali Abtahi said today she died as a result of beatings.

Abtahi told reporters in Tehran, "According to a report by the health minister she has died of a brain hemorrhage resulting from beatings." The announcement comes just hours after Tehran yesterday delayed burial of Kazemi so that a government inquiry could be conducted into the circumstances of her death.

Kazemi, a freelance photojournalist with dual Canadian-Iranian citizenship, was detained late last month after taking pictures of Tehran's notorious Evin Prison, where many political dissidents are jailed. She was interrogated by security forces on suspicion of spying, and died under guard in a hospital last week.

Tehran had initially attributed Kazemi's death to what it called a "brain attack," with no mention of beatings. But under intense diplomatic pressure from Canada, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami ordered his government over the weekend to look into the death of Kazemi and called on his culture, intelligence, interior, and justice ministers to launch "a rapid and comprehensive investigation to clarify ambiguities."

Kazemi's death has caused a major diplomatic flap between Tehran and Ottawa because the 54-year-old Montreal-based photojournalist died under highly mysterious circumstances which some of her relatives and friends say amount to murder. They said that Kazemi was so severely beaten by the security officials who detained her that she lapsed into a coma prior to being rushed to the hospital where she died.

Kazemi's son, Stephan Hachemi, told RFE/RL's Radio Farda that his mother was working alone while photographing the prison and, after her arrest, was not allowed communication with her relatives in Iran. "She was taking pictures and she worked by herself and with no team. [Her assailants] thought she is alone and doesn't know anybody in the country and has no contact. They used her as a target," Hachemi said.

Hachemi also told Radio Farda correspondent Maryam Aghvami that since his mother's death he has sought to have her body repatriated to Canada. But he said the repatriation was blocked by Tehran to keep relatives from seeing the body. "They [our relatives in Iran] did their best to try to save my mom. Now they still are trying to save the body. They didn't want us [relatives] to see the body. And they want to make it disappear now," he said. The Canadian government had demanded the body be returned to Canada. Deputy Prime Minister John Manley said on 14 July that Tehran's failure to return the body could harm bilateral relations. Three of Canada's main newspapers ran editorials yesterday demanding the government take a tough line with Tehran and that it insist upon an autopsy by independent experts.

Prior to this week's postponement of Kazemi's burial, Tehran had said the body should remain in Iran in accordance with the wishes of the photographer's mother. It is not clear whether today's announcement of the investigation results will change that decision.

The finding that Kazemi's death was due to beating is likely to focus new attention on the factional differences within the Iranian government, where some elements proved ready to clarify the circumstances surrounding her death but others sought to hide them. Those differences frequently see reformists allied with Khatami pitted against the hard-line judiciary, which has often used its powers to intimidate liberals and other political activists.

The judiciary has at times skirted legal proceedings by engaging in arbitrary arrests and keeping people in detention without acknowledging to relatives they are being held. Leading reformist parliamentarians have accused the police of using torture and excessive force to interrogate dissidents.

Tehran lawyer Hussein Aghassi told Radio Farda correspondent Amir Mosaddegh Katouzian that the Canadian photojournalist was working legally in Iran at the time of her detention. "She was accredited to work as a correspondent until 28 June. Therefore, she did not violate any law," Aghassi said. "She was arrested on 23 June, and was in custody of some elements whose identity is still unknown. On 26 June, she was handed over to the Ministry of Intelligence's authorities, where shortly after she was comatose and the authorities said she died of a [brain] attack."

Canadian officials had expressed doubt earlier this week that any investigation of Kazemi's death could be sufficiently transparent to satisfy Ottawa's demands to clarify the case.

The Canadian ambassador to Tehran, Philip MacKinnon, said yesterday in Tehran that "given the feudal centers of power within the regime, even when there are people of good faith it's very difficult to be able to say that something that is as politically significant as this will lead to the kind of transparent decisions we in Canada will want."

(RFE/RL's Azam Gorgin contributed to this report.)

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