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Iran: Nobel Peace Laureate To Represent Family Of Slain Photojournalist

Iranian lawyer Shirin Ebadi, this year's Nobel Peace Prize winner, says she will represent the family of Zahra Kazemi, the Canadian-Iranian journalist who was killed earlier this year while in police custody in Tehran. An Intelligence and Security Ministry agent has been charged with beating Kazemi to death during an interrogation. The case has fueled an already tense standoff between Iran's reformist and conservative factions.

Prague, 5 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -� A controversial court case that threatens to widen the divide between Iran's reformists and conservatives is heating up even more. Rights activist and lawyer Shirin Ebadi, this year's Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has agreed to represent the family of Zahra Kazemi, the Canadian-Iranian photojournalist who died this summer while in police custody in Tehran.

The issue of who is responsible for Kazemi's death has lodged at the heart of the power struggle between Iran's rival factions. The defendant in the case is Mohammad Reza Ahmadi, an agent with the Intelligence and Security Ministry, which has traditional ties to the reformists. Ahmadi has entered a not-guilty plea to charges that he delivered the beating that led to Kazemi's death.

Iran's reformist-dominated parliament has accused Tehran's hard-line prosecutor Said Mortazavi of illegally arresting Kazemi on trumped-up charges of espionage, forcing witnesses to alter their testimony, and attempting to hide the real circumstances of the photojournalist's death.

Mortazavi, in turn, has launched a counterattack, accusing the parliament of spreading lies and leveling baseless accusations. He also ordered newspaper publishers to refrain from publishing a parliamentary committee report containing the allegations, a move that angered journalists and reformists alike.

Iran's Society for the Protection of Press Freedom has called for the dismissal of Mortazavi, who has been behind the closure of innumerable reformist publications and the arrests of a number of liberal journalists. Reformist parliamentarian Ali Shakuri Rad urged fellow lawmakers to stand by the report in an open parliamentary session last week.

"The report of the parliament [committee] is the report of the parliament. The report of the Islamic parliament in the Islamic Republic has been censored and the newspapers have not been allowed to print it," he said. "What could be more important than for the parliament to stand up and defend its authority?"

Hussein Ansari-Rad, the head of the committee that authored the report, has called for Mortazavi to appear in court to answer questions about his role in the controversial case, which spurred a major diplomatic row with Ottawa this summer. So far the judiciary has not reacted to requests to remove Mortazavi. Human rights groups have questioned the integrity of Tehran's investigation into the Kazemi case and have called for the creation of an independent commission to re-examine the incident.

Abdol Karim Lahiji, an activist based in Paris, told RFE/RL: "Given the fact that Said Mortazavi has played an important role in this case since the first minutes of Kazemi's arrest, and also given the fact that the investigation was conducted under his supervision as the general prosecutor of Tehran, the results of the [parliamentary] report show the investigation has no legal value. The investigation should be carried out again."

The 54-year-old Montreal-based photojournalist, who held dual Iranian-Canadian citizenship, was arrested on 23 June while photographing families of political prisoners outside of Tehran's notorious Evin prison.

Several days later she died in hospital of a brain hemorrhage caused by a blow to the head. Between her arrest and admission to the hospital, Kazemi spent four days being moved between the Prosecutor-General's Office, the police, and the Intelligence and Security Ministry. Tehran first announced Kazemi had died of an unspecified "brain attack," but clarified the cause of death after an order by President Mohammad Khatami. The parliamentary report claims Kazemi's life might have been saved if she had been given proper medical care and transferred to the hospital on time.

Many reformists in Iran have expressed concern that Kazemi's case will remain unresolved, along with the dozens of killings of dissidents and writers. A 2001 trial of Intelligence and Security Ministry agents accused of murdering intellectuals was believed by many to be a show trial meant to cover up the true culprits.

Shirin Ebadi participated in that trial, representing the family of two slain dissidents. Since taking on the Kazemi case, she has requested and received a five-day postponement in order to review the case.
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is managing editor of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, which breaks through government censorship to deliver accurate news and provide a platform for informed discussion and debate to audiences in Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.