Torture and lies
by Arne Ruth and Heideh Daraghahi
March 31, 2005
Dr. Shahram Azam, an unassuming, intense man in his late 30s, had barely started his emergency-room shift when he admitted a female patient on a stretcher from Tehran's Evin prison at 12:15 a.m. on June 27, 2003.
Zahra Kazemi was accompanied by three guards and a written diagnosis of hemorrhage as a result of digestive problems. Dr. Shahram Azam soon found that she was deeply unconscious due to a skull fracture and had wounds and bruises all over her body.
"The first time I set eyes on her, she was an unconscious woman lying under a sheet on a stretcher with just a bruise on her forehead," he recalled. "Acting on the diagnosis sent from the prison clinic, a nurse tried to pass a tube to her stomach through her nose, but we discovered that the nose bone had been broken."
It was immediately obvious that Ms. Kazemi had been severely beaten, Dr. Azam said.
Three hours later that same night, as he was taking Ms. Kazemi to the CAT scan, he passed two colleagues who were not on the hospital staff, but had brought their own patients in to take advantage of the hospital's excellent equipment.
"They were terribly shaken when they saw Ms. Kazemi's condition," Dr. Azam said.
"When they asked what had happened and I said she'd been severely beaten, they asked if she'd been sent from prison. I said yes. Before I inquired further, they volunteered information about her background and the circumstances of her capture. I didn't ask, but I take it that they had been present at the demonstration where Zahra Kazemi had been arrested."
It was then, Dr. Azam said, "that I understood the political implications of her condition."
Accused of spying, Ms. Kazemi had been kept in custody under the supervision of Tehran's General Prosecutor, Saeed Mortazavi, until her transfer to the Baghiattulah hospital.
Mr. Mortazavi, a crony of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was already known for his decision to close 150 newspapers within a month in 2000, thereby signalling the end of hopes for a new political opening in Iran.
Hours after being admitted on June 27, Ms. Kazemi was declared brain-dead. She was kept on life support for another two weeks.
On July 10, Canada's Foreign Affairs Department summoned Iran's ambassador to a meeting, at which it demanded both independent medical treatment and an investigation into Ms. Kazemi's injuries. On July 11 she was taken off life support. Her death was announced the next day by Iran's Ministry of Information. There was no mention of violence as the cause of death.
Ms. Kazemi's family immediately requested that her body be returned to Canada for autopsy and burial. Instead, she was hastily buried in her city of birth, Shiraz, in southern Iran.
Soon after, Ms. Kazemi's mother testified that she had been forced by authorities to sign a document authorizing the burial.
Amid intense international pressure and fierce factional infighting between Iranian reformers and hard-liners, an Iranian parliamentary investigation was launched, parallel to an inquiry by a five-member ministerial committee set up by President Mohammed Khatami.
It emerged during the parliamentary inquiry that Mr. Mortazavi had tried to cover up the cause of Ms. Kazemi's death by forcing Information Ministry officials, under threat of arrest, to say she'd died of a stroke.
There was also testimony, later withdrawn, that Ms. Kazemi had been beaten unconscious within an hour of her arrest, when a prison official tried to confiscate her camera.
An official at the reformist-leaning Ministry of Information, Mohammad Reza Aghdam Ahmadi, was named in September of 2003 as the suspected killer. Mr. Ahmadi was cleared of the murder charge on July 24 of last year.
During his trial, lawyers representing Ms. Kazemi's mother named Mohammad Bakhshi, the head of security at Evin prison and a political ally of Mr. Mortazavi, as the possible killer.
Four days later, Iran's judiciary stated that the head injuries that had killed Ms. Kazemi were the result of an accident.
"With the acquittal of the sole defendant, only one option is left: The death of the late Kazemi was an accident due to a fall in blood pressure resulting from a hunger strike and her fall on the ground while standing," the official Iranian statement said.
Despite protracted diplomatic efforts by Foreign Affairs, among others, to have that decision overturned and a new investigation launched, this remains Iran's position today.
This outcome came as no surprise to Dr. Azam. Given the fact that three of the five ministers on Iran's presidential committee had known about Ms. Kazemi's arrest and had done nothing to reverse it, he said, the stage was set for a series of smokescreens from all parts of the power structure.
The efforts of both the reformist and hard-line factions to cover up what happened have, in Dr. Azam's view, been laughable. He believes the regime, not used to demands for accountability, has fallen into disarray.
"Neither of the two sides in power seemed to be interested in anything but passing the buck," he said. "The ministers claimed there were no traces of deliberate damage to her body after they'd interviewed us in the hospital."
Dr. Azam cited their words: "It is not clear whether death was caused by a hard object hitting the head or by the head hitting a hard object."