Bookmark and Share

We must up ante on Iran

7/28/03 By Nader Hashemi and Bahman Kalbasi, Canada

It is time for Canada to up the ante. Hard-line clerics in Iran seem determined to block further investigation into the death of Iranian Canadian journalist Zahra Kazemi.

Their initial response to Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham's call for a "full and swift prosecution of those responsible" was a clear attempt to whitewash the matter. This was demonstrated by the scandalous appointment of Saeed Mortazavi as the new Special Investigator. In other words, the fox was asked to investigate the hen house.

An outcry by reformist members of the Iranian parliament has forced a reversal of this decision and the matter has now been turned over the military court.

It is unlikely that this court will produce a verdict that does justice to the crime. Not only is it firmly in the hands of conservative hard-liners, but previous crimes of this magnitude have met a judicial dead end.

As this process plays itself out in Iran, much of the attention remains focused on Mortazavi. Who is he and why is he central to the unfolding tension in Canada-Iran relations?

Mortazavi is a pariah figure among pro-democracy advocates in Iran. Currently the prosecutor-general for the district of Tehran, he is the public face of clerical tyranny who embodies the worst aspects of the conservative oligarchy that dominates the Iranian state.

Mortazavi began his career as a loyal servant of puritanical Islamic rule in the Iranian city of Kerman. He slowly rose through the judicial ranks, first as a prison interrogator and then as a judge. His favourite targets were political dissidents.

In the late 1990s, Mortazavi rose to national prominence as the infamous press judge at Tehran Public Court No. 1410. In this capacity he personally presided over the systematic de-democratization of Iranian society that followed a brief period of liberalization during President Mohammad Khatami's first term in office.

Hundreds of reformist newspapers and journals were shut down on his orders for allegedly "insulting sanctities," "undermining national security," and "putting out false news."

It was also on Mortazavi's watch that dozens of pro-democracy journalists and activists - the best and brightest of a generation - were incarcerated for their non-violent defence of democracy. "Zionist spies" and "corrupters of Islam" was how he described them.

It was primarily due to Mortazavi's efforts that Iran earned the unique distinction, according to Reporters Without Borders, of being "the largest prison for journalists in the Middle East."

It is no surprise, therefore, that Mortazavi's name has been raised in connection with the death of Kazemi. At worst, he is suspected of delivering the fatal blow that killed Kazemi and at best, he was present during the worst moments of her interrogation. Only an independent investigation can reveal the true extent of his role in this terrible act.

The first group to implicate Mortazavi in Kazemi's death was Iran's own Islamic human rights commission which stated last week, "We think the prosecutor-general is responsible for the matter because (he has) been aware of the details of the story from the first day."

When news of Kazemi's death became public knowledge, there was an attempt by hard-liners in the judicial system to coverup the true cause of death.

Reformist members of the Iranian parliament soon revealed details of a secret meeting between the Deputy Minister of Culture and Mortazavi.

Reportedly, Mortazavi pressured the minister to have the Iranian News Agency (IRNA) declare that Kazemi died of natural causes (i.e. a stroke) rather than a beating to the head.

Furthermore, Mortazavi has been blamed as the key figure behind the attempt for a swift burial of the body, prior to the Iranian presidential investigation that confirmed what everyone had suspected: Kazemi died - in the words of the presidential report - from a "hard object hitting the head or the head hitting a hard object."

A close reading of this report also reveals that at key moments during her 77 hours of interrogation she was in the custody of the prosecutor-general's office in Tehran, headed by Mortazavi.

Speaking in the Iranian parliament last Sunday, Mohsen Armin, a reformist deputy, delivered a powerful denunciation of events surrounding Kazemi's death that was carried on live radio.

"In recent days we had the murder of Zahra Kazemi, a Canadian journalist, we had the arrest of students and Iranian journalists and we had the letter from Abbas Abdi, a journalist from inside the jail. For all these events you hear one name and that is Mortazavi," he said.

Armin continued: "(Mortazavi) forced the ministry of culture to lie about the cause of Kazemi's death, so he could cover it ... he also tried to bury her body as soon as possible." Armin concluded that this issue extends beyond the efforts of one man when he noted: "I know Mortazavi is not in a level to do all this alone and had high-ranking officials supporting him."

Whether these accusations about Mortazavi are true, we cannot be certain. The circumstantial evidence surrounding his role, however, raises serious questions that can only be answered by an independent and impartial inquiry. For this to happen, sustained and serious international pressure is required. This places the ball back in Canada's court.

Ottawa's decision to withdraw our ambassador from Tehran and to consider economic sanctions is welcome.

By taking a firm and uncompromising stand with Iran, Ottawa can simultaneously pursue two laudable goals. It can continue to fight for justice on behalf of the Kazemi family, and it can inadvertently assist the embattled reformist forces inside Iran who are locked in their own confrontation with conservative hard-liners.

Anything less would be a betrayal of Canadian values.

About the authors:
Nader Hashemi is a Ph.D. student in the political science department at the University of Toronto. Bahman Kalbasi is an Iranian pro-democracy activist studying at York University.

Note: This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star on July 25.

© Copyright 2003 (All Rights Reserved)