Recalling the events of that morning, Aazam, who now lives in Montreal with his wife and daughter, consults his examination notes and catalogues the injuries he discovered on the woman's body. Her nasal bone was smashed, and dried blood encrusted around her nostrils. A large bruise on the right side of her head extended down to her ear; the tissue on the back of her skull was inflamed and filled with blood. The ear was swollen, and the outer wall of her eardrum broken. The big toe on her right foot was smashed. The soles of her feet were badly bruised and the skin was peeling off. Toenails and fingernails had been torn away. Her little finger and ring finger were broken in two different places. Three parallel scratch marks dug into the back of her neck. A bruise extended from her navel to her lower abdomen and down to her right thigh. When a nurse tried to insert a catheter, she told Aazam that Kazemi's genital area looked as if it had been mangled in "a savage attack".
On the way to the neurological ward, Aazam met two colleagues who recognised his patient as a photojournalist they had seen during a demonstration held outside Evin prison days earlier. "It was then I realised what had happened," says the doctor. "This woman was arrested four days ago. She's a reporter; she was arrested healthy and now she's here smashed and injured all over." The CAT scan showed two fractures to her skull and internal bleeding.
Zahra Kazemi was 54 years old when she was beaten into a coma by Iranian interrogators. An Iranian-Canadian photojournalist based in Montreal, she had travelled in the Middle East, Africa and central America, focusing on ordinary people, particularly women and children, chronicling day-to-day lives constrained by poverty and repressive regimes.
In one picture, a young Palestinian girl, weighed down by her school bag, walks home at the end of the day. Debris on the road burns, and Israeli military trucks loom in the background. In another taken in 2002, an Afghan girl stares accusingly at the camera. One taken in Iran captures a woman covered in an abbaya, reading a book alongside an expanse of sea. Kazemi was, as Montrealers like to say, "une artiste engagée" - an artist whose political and social commitments suffused her work and gave it life. Her images give a value to the sort of resistance to oppression that often goes overlooked.
In May 2003, Kazemi had travelled to Iraq to capture the early months of the US occupation. Then she crossed the border back to Iran, the home she had left in 1974 when it was ruled by the shah. Now a different kind of authoritarian regime held power. Kazemi set about covering the student demonstrations demanding democratic reforms that swept the country in June and July. Ayatollah Khameini responded to the protests by having the security forces detain thousands of demonstrators. On June 23, families and colleagues of the detainees assembled outside Evin prison, denouncing the detentions.
Plain-clothes security men at the demonstration accused Kazemi of taking pictures of the prison walls, which is forbidden. They tried to confiscate her camera. She refused to hand it over. Witnesses say she had been interviewing and photographing detainees' families and did not want the photographs to fall into the hands of Iranian intelligence. A tug-of-war ensued, and the agents arrested her. What happened between her arrest and the time she was brought to hospital, her body showing obvious signs that she had been beaten, tortured and raped into unconsciousness? The lawyers who represent Kazemi's family in Iran recently released a report in which they reconstruct those four treacherous days.
Dragged inside the prison, Kazemi held on to her camera even when an unnamed official tried to wrest it from her. Emboldened, perhaps, by the thought that, though travelling on her Iranian passport, her Canadian citizenship would protect her, Kazemi was not intimidated. She continued to argue vehemently and struggle with the official in front of a number of other judiciary officials and prison guards. Humiliated by his inability to cow a woman into giving up her camera, the official began to beat Kazemi on the head, sending her flying backwards. Her skull connected with the hard surface that broke her fall. Judges then ordered that she be transferred to the offices of the chief prosecutor of Tehran.
Aazam speculates that at this point the officials started to worry. Kazemi was a Canadian citizen and as such would be able to tell her story when she left the prison. They needed an explanation for injuring her so badly: Kazemi, they said, was a spy, posing as a journalist in order to photograph government property. To force her to confess, they began to torture her. She remained defiant - so defiant that, when she was returned to Evin and was again told to sign a confession, she wrote that she had been beaten during her interrogation at the prosecutor's office. Her torturers kept the statement in her file.
A couple of hours after Kazemi was hospitalised, Aazam received a call from the office of the general prosecutor, Saeed Mortazavi, wanting to know how Kazemi was doing. (Mortazavi oversees the judiciary and is responsible for political detainees at Evin and in other, secret, detention centres.)
The following afternoon, she was pronounced braindead, but there were orders to keep her on life support. A few days later, Aazam visited her and noticed that Kazemi's face seemed less bruised. Her body was healing. Aazam sensed the first signs of a cover-up: "The reason they were keeping her on life support was to reduce the signs of bruising, so that when she went for forensic tests and when the family saw her, she wouldn't look so bad."
On July 3, the Iranian authorities contacted Kazemi's mother, who lives in Shiraz. She travelled to Tehran to visit her daughter in hospital, and later testified in court to having observed cuts and bruises on Kazemi's face. Kazemi's family telephoned her 26-year-old son, Stephan Hachemi, in Montreal. Then they notified the Canadian embassy. When consular officials visited Baghiatollah, they were allowed to see Kazemi only through plate glass.
On July 11, Kazemi was taken off life support. Fearing the results of an independent autopsy if her body was returned to Canada, the Iranian authorities put pressure on her mother to agree to a quick burial in Shiraz. In spite of her son's demands, her body has still not been returned. Stephan Hachemi says he never had any hope that justice would be done in Iran, but is deeply frustrated that the Canadian government has not done more to call to account the regime that killed his mother.
Indeed, after more than two years of diplomatic back and forth between the two countries, three separate investigations carried out by different Iranian institutions, a trial and an appeal, no one has been convicted of her death.
The Iranian government's pronouncements on Kazemi's death have been multiple and inconsistent, revealing a power struggle between a reformminded parliament and a hard-line judiciary. Making the first public announcement that Kazemi had died, Mohammad Hoseyn Khoshvaqt, director of the foreign press and media department at the ministry of culture and Islamic guidance, claimed she had died of a "brain attack". Four days later, the vice president affirmed that her death had been caused by "a brain haemorrhage resulting from beatings".
President Khatami initiated a ministerial inquiry into the circumstances surrounding Kazemi's death on July 13 2003. It ended less than a week later and determined that Kazemi had died as a result of a "fractured skull, brain haemorrhage, and its consequences resulting from a hard object hitting her head or her head hitting a hard object". No one was held accountable and no formal charges were pressed.
A week later, the Majilis Article 90 Commission (a body set up under the Iranian constitution to investigate complaints against the executive or the judiciary) announced that it would pursue another investigation. Released at the end of October 2003, the commission's report was highly critical of the judiciary, and particularly of chief prosecutor Saeed Mortazavi, going so far as to accuse him of covering up the true cause of Kazemi's death. Mortazavi refused to testify before the commission. But Khoshvaqt did, and accused Mortazavi of putting pressure on him to make the "brain attack" announcement.
The commission has no enforcement mechanisms and, like the presidential inquiry, its report omitted significant evidence, for example, of rape.
On July 28 2004, a low-level intelligence officer was put on trial charged with "semi-intentional murder". He was acquitted and the judiciary issued a statement: "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." In July 2005, Shirin Ebadi, the Nobel Laureate who heads the team of lawyers representing Kazemi's family in Iran, petitioned in a court of appeal to have the investigation into Kazemi's death reopened as a case of first-degree murder. The judge rejected the appeal, so the judiciary's statement stands.
Aazam was interviewed in the course of the two official inquiries; he was hopeful the truth would emerge. But when the results were reported in the news, he was deeply disillusioned. A former soldier who served in the Iran-Iraq war, he remembers thinking, "I have spent 10 years of my life serving them as a physician, and before that I went to war, I got injured. I did everything for this government. And they are lying. They are lying to me after I have spent all these years serving them."
That night at Baghiatollah hospital had taken him back to his student days in the mid-80s, when the revolution was still relatively young. Other students would talk of torture and abuse in Iranian prisons. "When I heard that, I would say, no, that's not true ... I thought that people were lying." But as he examined Kazemi, he realised, "I was seeing it for myself."
He and his wife decided they had to leave Iran so that Aazam could testify to what he had seen, in the hope of preventing it happening again. Using an old war injury as an excuse, Aazam travelled with his family to Finland, then to Sweden; he abandoned their house to the Iranian government as collateral, broke contact with siblings and extended family, and left his medical career behind. Then he waited in Sweden for the examination notes to arrive by courier before contacting Kazemi's son.
After several months, Aazam and his family were accepted as refugees by the Canadian government. On March 31 2005, within three days of landing in the country, Aazam testified to what he had seen at an Ottawa press conference. His graphic description of Kazemi's tortured body shocked many Canadians, and refocused international attention on her case.
Even so, little headway has been made. And human rights activists now recognise they are navigating a difficult course when they try to bring to the world's attention the case of their journalist colleague and those of hundreds of other victims of the Iranian regime's repression. Everyone wants to claim human rights as their own. In North America, the death of Kazemi has been used as an argument for US intervention in Iran.
Shortly after the first anniversary of Kazemi's death, a column by David Frum, former speechwriter for George W Bush, appeared in the National Post, a conservative Canadian newspaper, reminding readers that Iran was part of the "axis of evil" (it was Frum who coined the phrase). Headlined "Waking up to the Iranian threat", the article was accompanied by a photo of Hachemi holding his mother's portrait at a protest outside the Iranian embassy. Frum chastised Canadian foreign policy-makers who "do not seem to connect the dots between the death of Zahra Kazemi and the larger Iranian threat to world peace". It was not the first or last time that commentators would conflate Kazemi's murder and Iran's nuclear capabilities.
Hadi Ghaemi, Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch in New York, chafes at the notion that US intervention would transform the judicial climate that allowed Kazemi to be killed. Iran must be held accountable for its human rights violations, he argued, but "any [US] intervention or military action would backfire". Military intervention, he and Shirin Ebadi say in an article they co-wrote in the New York Times, would jeopardise the human rights discourse that is flourishing at grass-roots level in Iran. Less than a year later, speaking by phone, Ghaemi reflects ruefully on the election of President Ahmadinejad's hard-line government: "In a way [the US threat of intervention] has already resulted in the deterioration of conditions in Iran, partly by the taking power of the new cabinet."
Kazemi's own work has been at the centre of a political dispute. This summer, the Côte-Saint-Luc library in Montreal censored her photographs. The library planned an exhibition as a tribute to Kazemi's courage and devotion to human rights, but on the opening day they removed five photographs taken in Palestine - including the one of the Palestinian girl on her way to school, and another of Israeli hand grenades - from a photo essay that spanned Afghanistan, Palestine and Iran. They objected to the essay because it "placed Israel, the mullahs and the Taliban on the same footing". The move prompted a battle between the borough that runs the library and Kazemi's son, who demanded that either the pictures be remounted, or all the photographs removed. The library took them all down.
"Ms Kazemi's photos transcend time and space," said the city councillor who made the final call. They did not need any political "dressing"; it was the way the pictures were arranged that had caused offence. No statement could have been more disingenuous. Kazemi's pictures are powerful because they draw attention to the intimate particularities of repression at specific times, in specific places, under specific regimes. And it was this commitment that scared her captors so much that they preferred to kill her rather than allow her photographs to be seen.Topics
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