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Iran: Political Crisis Grows Over Death Of Canadian Photojournalist

  • Azam Gorgin
  • Charles Recknagel

A political crisis continues to grow in Iran over the recent death of a Canadian photojournalist while in police custody. Reformist leaders say the case not only damages relations with Ottawa but underlines the way Iran's hard-line judiciary flouts the law in dealing with anyone it considers to be a critic of the regime.

Prague, 25 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The recent death of Canadian photographer Zahra Kazemi while in custody is fueling domestic calls for the dismissal of Tehran's hard-line prosecutor-general, long a nemesis of Iran's reform movement.

Early this week, a leading reformist parliamentarian, Mohsen Armin, demanded publicly that Tehran chief prosecutor Said Mortazavi fully explain why Kazemi was arrested last month while photographing the families of political prisoners in front of Tehran's notorious Evin Prison. Many of Iran's political dissidents are detained at Evin.

Speaking in an open session of the reformist-led parliament, Armin said: "The death of a journalist, a citizen of another country, through a severe blow to her head in custody is not an insignificant matter. Judge Mortazavi has to answer why he issued a warrant for her arrest and on what grounds he accused her of spying."

Armin was speaking in the wake of a government committee's report that Kazemi, who held dual Canadian and Iranian citizenship, died in custody on 11 July of a brain hemorrhage caused by a severe blow to the head. While detained, she was interrogated by police under the direct jurisdiction of the Tehran prosecutor.

Armin also told parliament that Mortazavi is not fit to hold office and should be dismissed. "Why is a person appointed as Tehran's public prosecutor who thinks about and does nothing other than arrest, interrogate, and expose people to forceful confessions and who violates the rights of political activists and journalists?" Armin said.

The call for Mortazavi's dismissal comes as the Kazemi case is becoming a lightening rod for long-suppressed frustrations among reformists over the continuing crackdown by Iran's hard-line judiciary on those it deems to be critics of the regime.

The Tehran chief prosecutor has been a central figure in the crackdown, which has seen the closure of scores of reformist newspapers and the arrests of hundreds of liberal journalists and activists over the past three years. Reformists accuse the judiciary of regularly flouting the law by convicting activists in closed-door trials and of using torture against political prisoners.

But if anger over Kazemi's death appears to be sparking a reformist counteroffensive against the judiciary, so far the results have been mixed. Iranian President Mohammad Khatami -- with whom many reformists are allied -- vowed a full investigation into who was responsible for the photojournalist's death. But, applying normal procedures, he turned to the judiciary itself to carry out the probe.

The judiciary, a civil body, began by appointing Mortazavi's own office to carry out the investigation. Then, in the first of a series of about-faces this week, the judiciary decided to delegate the matter to the military (security) court system instead. But yesterday the head of the Armed Forces Judicial Organization, Hojatoleslam Mohammad Niazi, said the case was not in his jurisdiction and handed responsibility back to Mortazavi's office yet again.

The rapid bouncing of the Kazemi file around the various departments of Iran's security apparatus has raised suspicions among reformists that the judiciary is scrambling to find a place to bury the investigation.

Tehran lawyer Ahmad Bashiri told RFE/RL's Radio Farda this week that the investigation could end up being divided up among several agencies. "The fact that, according to the judiciary's spokesman, the file was transferred from the Public Prosecutor's Office to the security courts makes one ponder a little. This means that the responsibility is divided between Public Prosecutor's Office, the judiciary and the Ministry of Intelligence, and nobody knows where the case gets referred to," Bashiri said.

The lawyer told Radio Farda correspondent Amir Mosaddegh Katouzian that if parts of the case do end up within the military courts, those courts would have the power to set their own standards for evidence quite independently of civil standards.

"If security personnel are accused and, based upon that the Public Prosecutor's Office announces it has no jurisdiction to investigate the case, the security courts can say the findings against [the accused] are insufficient. And due to those inadequacies [the security courts] will not investigate the case or the accused personnel," Bashiri said.

Equally, a military court can require that its trials be conducted behind closed doors as a matter of national security, insulating the proceedings from any civil oversight.

As it remains unclear just who will conduct the government's investigation into Kazemi's death, the case is not only turning into the latest contest between Iran's hard-liners and reformists. It also is drawing widening international attention.

The European Union this week joined Canada in calling on Tehran to prosecute those responsible for the photographer's death. Ottawa also said on 23 July it is recalling its ambassador to Iran to express its anger over Tehran's insistence Kazemi's body be buried in Iran rather than returned to her son in Canada.

The diplomatic row shows no sign of calming as Tehran, in turn, accused Canadian police yesterday of recently killing one Iranian citizen, and wounding two others, in Vancouver. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said, "The Islamic Republic will seek through diplomatic channels a clear and convincing explanation of this crime" against Iranians in Canada. He did not provide further details of the alleged incident.

Toronto's "The Globe and Mail" reported today that one ethnic Iranian man, Keyvan Tabesh, was shot on 14 July by a plainclothes police officer he was attacking with a machete in the Vancouver suburb of Port Moody. A Port Moody police department spokesman said Tabesh used the machete to rip into the side of a vehicle that had blocked his way, and police began looking for his vehicle after the incident was reported, "The Globe and Mail" reported on 18 July.

Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman Reynald Doiron said the Tabesh case and Kazemi's death in Iranian custody, are not legitimately comparable, according to the 25 July report.

Tabesh's family expressed surprise at the Iranian government's interest in the case and has asked relatives in Iran to contact the broadcast media there and tell it to stop broadcasting the story. "We don't want the government to use our family," said Keyvan's sister Rita Tabesh.

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