Montrealer's Death Rocks Iranian Politics

TO JOURNALISTS in Iran, Saeed Mortazavi, the all-powerful chief prosecutor of Tehran, is best known and feared for the room behind his office. At a long table, several young men sit with stacks of magazines and papers before them, pens in hand, scanning them for offending passages.

Montrealer's Death Rocks Iranian Politics

TO JOURNALISTS in Iran, Saeed Mortazavi, the all-powerful chief prosecutor of Tehran, is best known and feared for the room behind his office. At a long table, several young men sit with stacks of magazines and papers before them, pens in hand, scanning them for offending passages. When a story warrants too many circles, underlines or question marks, an aide collects it and places it on the prosecutor's desk for final judgment. Depending on Mortazavi's frame of mind, careers can be ruined, publications shut down, reporters jailed, and occasionally far, far worse.

Zahra Kazemi, it is alleged, falls into that final category. On June 23, the Iranian-Canadian photojournalist was detained for taking pictures outside of Tehran's notorious Evin prison, a warehouse for dissidents and protestors. For 77 hours she was questioned by authorities - first the police, later intelligence agents - who saw the combination of a camera and a foreign passport as the calling cards of a spy. At one point, things took a brutal turn and the 54-year-old Montrealer was rushed to hospital with massive head injuries. She died on July 10, without ever regaining consciousness. Now, according to a report by a committee of Iran's parliament, Mortazavi, the man who led the official investigation into Kazemi's death and is overseeing the trial of the intelligence ministry agent accused of beating her into a coma, is the one who should be facing justice. In an extraordinary challenge to the hardline clerics who control the police, judiciary and almost all of the political power in this country, reformist members of parliament are saying Tehran's chief prosecutor tampered with evidence, ordered witnesses to lie, and may have been present when the blows rained down.

"We are clearly sure than anything that happened to Zahra Kazemi happened before she was delivered to the intelligence ministry," Mohsen Armin, the outspoken MP who chaired the inquest, told Maclean's. "Mortazavi was the one who interrogated her for 4½ hours, and no one knows what happened to her during that time." Sitting in a shabby parliamentary office beneath glowering portraits of the late Ayatollah Khomeini and Ali Khamenei, the current supreme leader, Armin said his investigation concluded that Kazemi wasn't killed on purpose - a successful prosecution of a foreign journalist for spying would have been invaluable to hard-liners' efforts to further restrict the media. Whatever happened, he said, was an unfortunate mistake, in a country where physical force, though officially outlawed, is still a regular part of interrogations. "It happens to a lot of people," he said.

The report, tabled last week over the objections of the parliament's conservative minority, sets the stage for a decisive battle in the grinding war between reformists and the clerics who have ruled this country since the 1979 Islamic revolution. Despite overwhelming victories in the last two elections, the moderate faction led by President Mohammad Khatami has been largely frustrated in its attempts to advance civil rights and put more power into the hands of elected officials. Police crackdowns and the killing or imprisonment of many leading dissidents have robbed the movement of its momentum, and with the public rapidly losing faith in the system, reformers will be hard pressed in the upcoming February elections.

The judiciary is already mounting a counterattack. On the day of the report's release, Armin, who technically enjoys parliamentary immunity, was sentenced to six months in prison for allegedly insulting one of his hardline colleagues. Outside parliament last week, a prominent local lawyer hobbled from MP to MP, leaning on a cane, his neck in a brace - souvenirs, he said, of a recent jail term for contempt of court.

With such daunting challenges, even some reformers involved in preparing the report are gloomy about their chances for success. Mortazavi remains a powerful figure with powerful friends, said Hossein Ansari Rad, a moderate cleric, and even the worldwide publicity generated by Kazemi's death might not be enough to budge hard-liners. "The resignation of Mortazavi would be a defeat that the conservatives couldn't stand," says the white-bearded preacher. But, he adds, "Iran has to show the international community that this case has been dealt with fairly and with justice."

Judging by the domestic coverage of the allegations against the prosecutor, the reformers' pessimism might be justified. Only a handful of Tehran's 17 daily papers ran articles on the report - Mortazavi's office contacted editors and asked them to refrain until he has prepared a point-by-point rebuttal. And the six state-run television stations gave the story no play at all, opting instead to highlight new proposals to reduce the duration of mandatory military service. But now that the issue has been thrust to the fore of the domestic political agenda, it will be much harder for hard-liners to ignore. In an interview, Canada's ambassador to Iran, Philip MacKinnon, called the developments promising. "This is going to help us gain the kind of transparent investigation we've been asking for and it may also help in the return of Mrs. Kazemi's body," he said. The scandal, MacKinnon adds, can also have a positive fallout for human rights: "Many Iranians have said to me that her death will not be in vain if it means journalists will be better treated in the future."

The report's revelations came as no surprise to Kazemi's son, Stephan Hachemi. Even before its release, he laid the blame for his mother's death squarely on Tehran's prosecutor. "This guy was directly responsible," he said from his Montreal home, "and as long as he remains in charge of the process, justice is not going to be possible." Mortazavi has so far remained silent. Requests for interviews from foreign reporters are met with suspicion and hostility. Iranian journalists know better than to ask. After all, in the backroom the boys with the pens are still hard at work.

Maclean's November 10, 2003