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What Happened to Zahra? - by Summer Lee

  • Page ID
    187940
    • Summer Lee at Pima Community College

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    For most of us, the sounds of a camera taking pictures evokes memories of family gatherings, graduation, smiling with friends, and other fond events. But for one woman, Canadian-Iranian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi, the click of the camera was a prelude to her death. In June 2003, while taking pictures related to the student protests in Iran, Kazemi was arrested on a false accusation. While in custody, she was tortured and eventually brutally murdered. Her story is intricate with elements of Iranian government coverup, eventual revelation of the truth with the help of eyewitnesses, and the heartbreaking aftermath of her loss. The more one learns of her and her story, the more anger is felt. Unlike most photojournalists, Kazemi’s focus was mainly on the humanitarian effects caused by political world events, especially on women and children. So, what was done in response to her wrongful killing? Sadly, it appears that almost twenty years later, there has been no justice for Zahra Kazemi’s death. Both the governments of Iran and Canada have failed to bring the villains who committed this heinous crime to justice.

    Zahra Kazemi, who was born in Shiraz, Iran, was often referred to as “Ziba” by her family and close friends (“Kazemi's Mother"). According to an interview with Kazemi’s mother, the aspiring photojournalist studied at a Television University after graduating from high school (“Kazemi's Mother"). While there, she married her husband and moved to France with him in 1974 (CJFE). She studied cinema and literature in college (Stylianou), and eventually got her Ph.D. at Sorbonne University (“Kazemi's Mother"). In 1993, Kazemi and her son, Stephan Hachemi, moved to Canada where she worked as a freelance photojournalist (CPJ).

    Although she never worked for any specific press company, Kazemi was a contributor to the Montreal magazine Recto Verso and the London photo agency Camera Press (CPJ). She would travel around to visit poor countries in the Middle East, Africa, and Central America and take photos (Schmidt). Unlike most photojournalists who take pictures of important people and events, Kazemi’s work focused on the daily lives of ordinary citizens in these countries, mainly women and children. This was to emphasize how the policies of the repressive regimes affected the citizens’ standard of life and to show how it violated their human rights (Schmidt). In 2013, the 10-year anniversary of his mother’s death, Stephan Hachemi compiled a collection of Kazemi’s work to honor her memory (Talaga). He stated, “She would go and get to know people, get close to them, get intimate access, to try to show people are just like us” (Talaga).

    Kazemi’s work eventually led her to travel back to her homeland of Iran. In the summer of 2003, the entire country was swamped by student demonstrations (Savyon). These demonstrations were originally peaceful protests opposing the Iranian government’s plan to privatize their universities, which would increase tuition fees significantly. However, things soon escalated as the students began expressing their dissatisfaction with the regime and wanted a more democratic system. This led to them demanding the resignation of Iranian President Mohammad Khatami. As these students were directly and openly opposing a major political figure, the Iranian forces of Basij and Ansar-E Hizbullah started to take action (Savyon). Basij is the paramilitary arm of the Iranain regime, and Ansar-E Hizbullah is an organized group of loyalists to the regime. Both of these groups would break into the university dorms at night to attack students while they were sleeping. They even arrested drivers who honked to show support for the demonstrations (Savyon). Although the regime initially emphasized that the students would not be arrested, Iranian Prosecutor-General Ayatollah Abd Al-Nabi Namazi later came out and stated that over 4000 people had been detained (Savyon).

    Since these demonstrations were actively opposing the Iranian regime, the individuals who participated in them were imprisoned in Evin prison, a jail in Tehran notorious for detaining political prisoners. On June 23, Kazemi made her way to the prison to take pictures and interview some of the imprisoned student’s families, who were standing outside of the prison (Schmidt). True to her cause, she was more interested in the humanitarian side by showing how the arrests affected the families of the prisoners rather than the purely political side. While photographing the families, security agents from the prison falsely accused her of taking pictures of the prison walls, an action that is considered illegal in Iran. She denied the accusation, however the guards still demanded that she hand over her camera. Since she had been photographing family members of the student prisoners, she was afraid for their fates should the photos fall into the possession of Iranian intelligence (Schmidt). In order to protect those families, she refused to give the agents her camera. This resulted in her arrest (Schmidt).

    The guards had approached Kazemi with the claim that she was illegally photographing the Evin Prison walls. Of course, if she had been doing so, the purpose of her arrest would have been legally valid in Iran. But was she actually taking photos as accused? In Kazemi’s case, this possibility is not likely for a few different reasons. The first reason centers on her photography work. Please take a look at her photography work in these links and youtube video.

    https://www.gettyimages.ca/detail/news-photo/stephan-hachemi-the-son-of-the-late-zahra-kazemi-a-montreal-news-photo/2722096?phrase=stephan%20hachemi&adppopup=true

    https://www.gettyimages.ca/detail/ne...&adppopup=true

    After viewing, it becomes obvious her work has certain characteristics. Just as an artist has a certain style of painting, Kazemi’s pictures all have a common theme: they revolve around ordinary citizens. None of her photos have ever starred a building, landscape, or something mainstream political. Her focus in all the pictures are everyday citizens, especially women and children. It would have been extremely out of character for her to be taking pictures of a prison building. Additionally, the prison guards eventually did gain possession of her camera and the film by the time of her death. If there had been any inkling that she took pictures of the prison wall, the Iranian government would have surely pounced on the fact that she committed a crime in order to justify their actions. Since this topic has never been mentioned by the regime, it’s impossible that Kazemi could have photographed the prison walls. The most likely reason the agents arrested her was that they didn’t like that a reporter empathized with political prisoners or their families, coupled with the desire to get ahold of the pictures which would reveal the identities of the family members.

    As the guards dragged Kazemi inside the prison, they once again demanded she hand over her camera. Once again, she refused. The agent attempted to take it from her by force, a task that proved difficult as Kazemi fought back. Infuriated, the agent beat her head, causing her to fly backwards and crack her skull (Schmidt). After this incident, she was transferred to the office of Tehran’s chief prosecutor, Saeed Mortazavi. For a normal citizen of Iran, this sort of violent treatment would be nothing out of the ordinary. Mortazavi, commonly known as the “Butcher of the Press” would often torture journalists in the backroom of his office (Gatehouse). However, as Kazemi was a citizen of both Iran and Canada, the prosecutor knew this could become an international incident. To justify her abuse, Mortazavi insisted that she was a Canadian spy taking pictures of Evin Prison and sent Kazemi to the detention center (NCRI). On the orders of Mortazavi, the agents continued to torture the photojournalist and made her sign a confession. However, Kazemi chose not to comply with their demands, and instead wrote that she was tortured during an interrogation with the prosecutor (Schmidt).

    For three days, Kazemi was interrogated and abused by the Evin prison security guards. What happened to her during this time is a bit unclear. Fortunately, Evin prisoner Behnam Vafaseresht met with the Canadian Embassy to give his account (Petrou). He was imprisoned in January of that year because of his blog posts in support of democracy. He recalls that five months into his imprisonment, while on a hunger strike, he heard the voice of a woman and a man; the woman was screaming, and the man was swearing back at her (Petrou). For two nights, this scene repeated itself, with the woman yelling, "Don't push me! What have I done?”(Petrou) The woman’s screaming had transformed into begging and pleading by the third night. Around this time, Vafaseresht was in the hospital ward as his hunger strike had caused him extreme physical harm. While a prison doctor was taking his blood pressure, Vafaseresht saw four men, two of whom held batons, enter the room next door. Vafaseresht recognized one of them to be Mortazavi. The group carried a woman wrapped in a blanket with them (Petrou). When the doctor left for the other room, Vafaseresht overheard an argument among the four men: "Why did you do it?"

    "I didn't do anything."

    "I didn't hit her that hard.” (Petrou)

    At some point, Mortazavi became aware of Vafaseresht's presence in the room next door (Petrou). He along with another official began to punch and kick Vafaseresht until he was ordered back to his cell. They then blindfolded him during transit to make sure he didn’t see the affair occurring in the other room. However, Vafaseresht could peek out from underneath the blindfold to see a little. He managed to sneak a glance at the blanket-covered woman’s files. They were labeled as “Zahra Ziba Kazemi” (Petrou).

    On June 27, Kazemi was transferred to the Baghiatollah Hospital under the care of military doctor Shahram Aazam. She lay unconscious on a stretcher an under the guard of an armed soldier (Schmidt). The blanket-covered woman Vafaseresht saw in the prison was now uncovered to be examined by the horrified doctor. According to Aazam, Kazemi’s nose was crushed and surrounded by dried blood, and a large bruise extended from her head to her right ear. The ear itself was swollen and her eardrum had been broken as well (Schmidt). This was most likely the result of the initial strike from the security agent when she first got arrested.

    Unfortunately, the signs of torture don’t just end there. Kazemi’s big toe on her right foot was badly broken, and her feet were bruised with the skin peeling off (Schmidt). Her little and ring finger had been smashed in two separate places. All her fingernails and toenails had been torn off, almost certainly a result from her interrogation torture. Three scratch marks were found on the back of her neck, and yet another bruise extended from her navel to her right thigh (Schmidt). A nurse examined Kazemi’s genital area discovered it to be savagely mutilated, which was deduced to be the aftermath of a brutal rape. Furthermore, when Aazam had done a CAT scan, he saw that Kazemi’s skulled had been fractured twice, which resulted in internal bleeding (Schmidt).

    Considering all of the physical harm she had endured, it was sadly no surprise when Kazemi was pronounced braindead the following day (Schmidt). Yet, the hospital had still received orders to keep her on life support. Why? Aazam found the answer to that question when he went to her ward a few day later: her body was looking better. The previously terrible bruises slowly started to heal up (Schmidt). This was Iran’s plan of a coverup first came into action. As Aazam stated, "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” (Schmidt). On July 3, The Iranian government finally alerted Kazemi’s mother, who lived in Shiraz, about the incident. After she had traveled to Tehran to see her daughter, she contacted her grandson Stephan Hachemi, who then notified the Canadian embassy. The Canadian officials were only permitted to see Kazemi through a glass window (Schmidt).

    On August 3, 2003, the Toronto Star published an interview with Kazemi’s mother, Ezzet. Although the original interview, published in Iranian magazine Yas-e-Nou, was in Farsi, it was translated into English for Canadian readers to understand. According to Kazemi’s mother, a woman called to inform her that her daughter was arrested and they wanted her (Ezzet’s) house ownership as compensation (“Kazemi's Mother"). When she arrived at Evin Prison, the guards gave her a chador, an open cloak for women, and instructed her to come inside. The guards then gave Ezzet her daughter’s purse and camera and told her that she had a brain stroke. Heartbroken, Ezzet asked the guard to give her child’s clothing: "I want the dress my child was wearing! She had brown shoes and an Indian dress, a green scarf, black pants, and a brown overcoat. I want everything she was wearing” (“Kazemi's Mother"). The reason she asked for this is unclear; perhaps it’s in accord with their culture or religion, or maybe she simply wanted a memory of her daughter. She then had a back-and-forth with one of the prison guards, with her asking to see her daughter and the guard prohibiting it. The guards brought Ezzet lunch and continued interrogating her (“Kazemi's Mother"), thankfully in a far less violent manner then they did with her daughter.

    Half an hour later, the guards finally allowed Ezzet to see her daughter. What she saw before her eyes was any mother’s greatest nightmare. Ezzet saw her daughter’s eyes shut and her feet wrapped in bandages. A portion of her head was shaved off, and wounds laid underneath her eyes. Just like Dr. Aazam, Kazemi’s mother also noticed the large, black bruise on her daughter’s thigh and forearm (“Kazemi's Mother"). As she examined her, the guards informed Ezzet that Kazemi was in a coma. In comparison, Kazemi looked slighter better now than initially when Dr. Aazam first saw her. Nevertheless, for a mother to behold the sight of her daughter’s beaten body must have been remembered as a mother’s greatest terror. Ezzet wanted to know why her daughter’s arm was bruised (“Kazemi's Mother"). The prison guard claimed that it was from an injection, but Ezzet retorted back. “Are you kidding me? The injection was on the inside of her elbow. Why is her upper arm bruised?” (“Kazemi's Mother") In the days following, Ezzet would come to the hospital to visit her daughter (“Kazemi's Mother"), until July 11, when Kazemi was taken off life support and died at age 54 (Schmidt).

    Now that Kazemi was officially pronounced dead, the Iranian government would have to account for her death. As Aazam stated, “She's a reporter; she was arrested healthy and now she's here smashed and injured all over” (Schmidt). If the true story of her death ever got exposed, the regime would be the center of an international incident. As a result, they desperately tried to cover up her death, starting out by falsely claiming a natural stroke as the cause of her death. In fact, Saeed Mortazavi was quoted stating that Kazemi died due to a stroke (Lancaster). Although it is technically true that she died from internal brain bleeding, her body showed signs of torture leading to a skull fracture. Any third-party that examined Kazemi’s body would be able to deduce that her brain hemorrhage was caused by abuse and beatings. In an attempt of preventing that scenario, the Iranian officials forced her mother to agree to have Kazemi’s body buried in Iran (Schmidt). This way, the Canadian Embassy wouldn’t be able to perform an autopsy on the deceased photojournalist.

    Ezzet was initially reluctant and allowed the Canadian officials to have Kazemi be returned to Canada (“Kazemi's Mother"). She later was forced by the Iranian officials into having her daughter’s burial in Iran (NCRI). When asked about it in an interview, Ezzet recalls that while she stayed over at a friend’s house in Tehran, Iranian agents would come over daily and harass her host in order to persuade her (“Kazemi's Mother"). “I was forced to agree. I was alone with no money and nowhere to go,” she said during the interview (“Kazemi's Mother"). Naturally, Kazemi’s son strongly disagreed with the burial and demanded that his mother be returned to Canada. He was well aware of the situation that his grandmother was placed in. The two had regular conversations over the phone, but Hachemi knew that the Iranian government was listening into their conversations (Sallot and Peritz). He was quoted saying, “It has been clear between us, and all the members of the family, that [Ms. Kazemi] won’t be buried in the land of the people who murdered her. (Sallot and Peritz)” However, despite his objections, Kazemi’s body was still buried on July 23, 2003, in her hometown of Shiraz (NCRI). Ezzet said that the Iranian doctors had performed an autopsy on her daughter’s body, without permission. While her body was being washed for the funeral, it apparently bled as a result of the autopsy (“Kazemi's Mother").

    The topic of Kazemi’s death had inevitably become an international matter of interest. The director of foreign press and media, Mohammad Hoseyn Khoshvaqt, followed Mortazavi’s lead and stated that Kazemi died of a stroke to the reporters (Schmidt). He later testified that Mortazavi had threatened him to make that claim (NCRI). Four days later, however, President Khatami contradicted Khoshvaqt’s statement by affirming that the photojournalist died from “a brain hemorrhage resulting from beatings (Schmidt).” He most likely caved and told the truth because of the pressure placed on him by the rest of the world, as Kazemi’s death became known around the world. On July 13, President Khatami held an inquiry discussing the circumstances of Kazemi’s death (Schmidt). Ironically, Mortazavi, the very man who ordered her torture, was also the person put in charge of Kazemi’s investigation (Gatehouse). Unfortunately, the inquiry ended less then a week later with no one being held accountable, as the ministry decided that Kazemi had died due to a “fractured skull, brain hemorrhage, and its consequences resulting from a hard object hitting her head or her head hitting a hard object (Schmidt).”

    After this pathetic and compromised investigation, Iran went silent in regard to Kazemi’s case. It wasn’t until July 28, 2003, an entire year later, that this topic was brought back into light. This time, low-level intelligence Reza Aghdam Ahmadi was charged with beating Kazemi to death (Lancaster). After his trial was concluded, the judiciary cleared him of any charges and officially decided that “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” (Schmidt). Just like the investigation conducted a year before, this pathetic trial ended without any justice, and Iran went silent once again. Fortunately, in July of 2005, Nobel Peace Prize-winning lawyer Shirin Ebadi, the head of team representing Kazemi’s family, asked to have Kazemi’s case reopened as one of first-degree murder (Schmidt). Nevertheless, the judge rejected Ebadi’s appeal, and thus officially concluded Iran’s investigation into Kazemi’s death.

    One would expect that since Kazemi was a Canadian citizen, the Canadian government would take action to discover the truth about her death. In fact, Jean Chrétien, the Prime Minister of Canada at the time, was quoted saying, “If crimes have been committed, we are demanding of the Iranian government to punish those who committed the crime, and we will push that case” (Sallot and Peritz). In the beginning, the Canadian Embassy tried to get involved with Iran’s investigation of Kazemi’s death. Unsurprisingly, the Iranian government tried to block them at every turn, despite claiming they would inform the Canadians of any new developments. The regime denied in allowing the Canadian Embassy to assist with Kazemi’s forensics, claiming they were, “competent to conduct their own criminal investigation” (Sallot and Peritz).

    Naturally, the Iranians conviction to exclude the Canadians from participating in the forensics would pose a challenge to the Canadian government helping bring justice to Kazemi and her family. However, there are other ways besides taking part of the investigation that would provide proof against the Iranian regime. For one, it seemed painfully obvious that Mortazavi was responsible for Kazemi’s murder. After all, he was already infamous in Iran for imprisoning, torturing, and oftentimes ordering the murder of reporters (Gatehouse). The fact that he was also the one who ordered Kazemi’s arrest and torture, as well as overseeing her death investigation, should have been a red flag that Mortazavi has Kazemi’s blood on his hands. There were a couple whistleblowers who could testify to Mortazavi’s involvement in Kazemi’s murder. Vafaseresht, the person who was in Evin prison at the time of Kazemi’s arrest and recognized Mortazavi among the men who orchestrated her death, would be an invaluable witness in a legal case against the Iranian regime. However, other than meeting with him once for his account, the Canadian Embassy has yet to contact him again (Petrou). Dr. Aazam, who has moved to Canada with his family, is openly willing to testify against Mortazavi. Once again, the Canadian government never reached out to him to ask about the Kazemi case since he left Iran (Petrou).

    Mortazavi did eventually get placed in prison, but it wasn’t by the push of the Canadian government. As a matter of fact, his arrest had nothing to do with Kazemi’s case at all. On November 26, 2016, the Iranian government decided he had to spend two years in prison for the death of Mohsen Rouhalamini. Mohsen was arrested in a 2009 demonstration and died from beatings in a detention center ("Butcher"). Was Mohsen Rouhalamini also a journalist? Actually, the answer is no. Unlike Kazemi’s death, the Iranian regime took action for Mohsen’s death because his father, Abdolhossein Rouhalamini, was an important Iranian politician. Although it took almost eight years for any results, Mortazavi was finally, with much effort from Rouhalamini, sentenced to serve only two years in prison ("Butcher"). Interestingly, even in that case, the Iranian government tried to let Mortazavi off the hook by claiming he was “missing” and couldn’t be found after his sentencing. When the Iranian citizens heard this news, they began taping up “wanted posters” of Mortazavi, clearly wanting him to be found and imprisoned. Rouhalamini most likely also wanted the former chief prosecutor to be sent to jail, as he was found two years later and began serving his sentence in prison on April 21, 2021 ("Butcher").

    If even the corrupt Iranian regime could finally bring some form of justice for one of their own men, the Canadian government could surely do more and at the very least hold the Iranians responsible for Kazemi’s death. However, instead of pursuing it, the Canadian government had silently dropped Kazemi’s case and turned a blind eye. Despite their earlier claims that they would serve justice at any cost, results have yet to be seen. On the 10-year anniversary of her death, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said that Canada has not forgotten about Zahra Kazemi, and stated, “Her memory strengthens our resolve to seek long-awaited justice in her case. It reminds us of all those still languishing as political prisoners in Iranian jails and compels us to keep exerting pressure on the regime in Tehran to take concrete steps to address the egregious state of human rights in Iran and to face the Iranian people's desire for change. (Talaga)” Yet, what actions have the Canadian government taken to seek justice? Earlier this year, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that 10,000 Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps would be forever banned from entering Canada (Robertson). Among these individuals are Mortazavi and 20 other Iranian officials. This ban has so far been the most action the Canadian government has taken against Iran, and it still doesn’t hold anyone accountable for Kazemi’s death. As Stephan Hachemi stated in 2013, "The Iranian government did what they did because they could. They knew the Canadian government would let them do whatever they want. They knew very well they'd still be able to sell their gas and make deals with Canadian companies. They didn't hesitate and they weren't wrong. There were no real consequences” (Talaga). Sadly, this statement has so far remained true.

    Today the year is 2022. Almost twenty years have passed since Zahra Kazemi was arrested for a crime she never committed. She was beaten, raped, and murdered for doing nothing other than dare defy an Iranian agent in order to protect innocent families. For twenty years, a mother has been wrongfully robbed of her daughter. For twenty years, a son has been tragically torn from his mother. Most tragically, no one has ever been held accountable for this crime against humanity. Those who orchestrated Kazemi’s death have never been convicted of her murder, and the country she had lived in for almost 30 years has done nothing to fight for her justice. It’s time for Canada to answer for their lack of action. When will Kazemi’s body be returned to Canada in line with the wishes of her family? When will Kazemi’s murders finally be prosecuted for her death? Canada, when will justice for Zahra Kazemi finally be served?

    Works Cited

    Ahang1001, director. ZAHRA زهرا. YouTube, YouTube, 9 Apr. 2011, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j0Hjuw9kLMc. Accessed 20 Nov. 2022.

    Gatehouse, Jonathon. “SEEKING ANSWERS.” Maclean's, 10 Nov. 2003, https://web.p.ebscohost.com/ehost/de...1267710&db=aph.

    Lancaster, Pat. “Comment.” Middle East, Jan. 2004, https://web.p.ebscohost.com/ehost/de...1812833&db=aph.

    “Mysterious Death of Zahra Kazemi Is Unraveled after 15 Years.” NCRI Women Committee, 31 Oct. 2018, https://women.ncr-iran.org/2018/06/2...fter-15-years/.

    Robertson, Dylan. “Ottawa Announces New Iran Sanctions: Former Minister among 20 Officials, Entities Added to List.” The Canadian Press, 14 Oct. 2022, https://www.proquest.com/docview/272...ccountid=13194.

    Sallot, Jeff, and Ingrid Peritz. “Iran Admits Kazemi Was Beaten.” The Globe and Mail, The Globe and Mail, 17 July 2003, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news...rticle1018952/.

    Savyon, A. “Iran's Student Riots - June 2003.” MEMRI, Middle East Media Research Institute, 16 July 2003, https://www.memri.org/reports/irans-...iots-june-2003.

    Schmidt, Andréa. “Killer Images.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 19 Nov. 2005, https://www.theguardian.com/theguard...kend7.weekend3.

    Stylianou, Irene. “Female Photographers and Feminism.” Foto Femme United, Foto Femme United, 21 Sept. 2021, https://fotofemmeunited.com/article/335.

    Talaga, Tanya. “Ten Years and Still No Justice for Zahra Kazemi.” The Toronto Star, 13 July 2013, https://www.proquest.com/docview/139...ccountid=13194.

    Yas-e-Nou. “Kazemi's Mother Speaks.” Toronto Star, 3 Aug. 2003, https://eds.s.ebscohost.com/eds/deta...0035066&db=pwh.

    “Zahra Kazemi.” CJFE, https://www.cjfe.org/zahra_kazemi.

    “Zahra Kazemi.” Committee to Protect Journalists, https://cpj.org/data/people/zahra-kazemi/.

    “‘Butcher of the Press’ Mortazavi in Jail - Finally.” IranWire, 2018, https://iranwire.com/en/features/65278/.

     


    This page titled What Happened to Zahra? - by Summer Lee is shared under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Summer Lee at Pima Community College.