TORONTO, First of April (IPS) Iranian-Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi was savagely beaten, tortured and raped while in Iranian custody in 2003, according to Dr. Shahram A’zam, an emergency-room doctor who examined her before she died.
Dr.A’zam has recently received political asylum in Canada and was speaking with Canadian and Swedish newspapers about the murder of Ms. Kazemi.
Formerly a physician on the staff of the Iranian Ministry of Defence, Dr. A’zam said he examined Ms. Kazemi, a 54-year-old Iranian-born dual citizen, at Tehran's Baghiattulah hospital early on the morning of June 27, 2003 -- four days after she was arrested on the orders of Sa’id Mortazavi, the Prosecutor for Tehran and the Islamic Revolution tribunals while photographing a demonstration by the families of political prisoners outside Tehran's Evin prison.
The emergency-room nurse who thoroughly examined Ms. Kazemi found that she had been subject to "a very brutal rape".
Accused of spying, Ms. Kazemi had been kept in custody under the supervision of Tehran's General Prosecutor, Sa’id Mortazavi, until her transfer to the Baghiattulah hospital.
Mr. Mortazavi, a crony of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameneh’i, was already known for his decision to close 150 newspapers within a month in 2000, thereby signaling 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.
The account of Ms. Kazemi's condition in the days before her death by Doctor A’zam, the first by a medical eye witness, confirms what the majority of Iranians knew, that she was tortured -- far more brutally than even critics of Iran's hard-line theocratic regime had believed.
"Her entire body carried strange marks of violence", Dr. A’zam said. "She had a big bruise on the right side of her forehead stretching down to the ear. The ear drum was intact, but the membrane in one of her ears had recently burst, and a loose blood vessel could be seen. Behind the head, on the left-hand side, was a big, loose swelling. Three deep scratches behind her neck looked like the result of nails digging into the flesh. The right shoulder was bruised, and on the left hand two fingers were broken. Three fingers had broken nails or no nails".
But the ranian clerical-led authorities said Ms. Kazemi's death was "accidental".
Dr. A’zam's account of his examination goes on to describe severe abdominal bruising, stretching over the thigh down to the knees. Though male doctors in Iran are not allowed to carry out vaginal exams, Dr. Azam's emergency-room nurse thoroughly examined Ms. Kazemi and found the bruising to be the result of "a very brutal rape".
“The nurse told me that the entire genital area had been damaged", Dr. A’zam said, adding that there was also evidence Ms. Kazemi had been whipped.
A report by a presidential investigation committee confirmed that Ms. Kazemi was beaten up, but concluded vaguely that “her head hit a strong object or a strong object hit her head”.
"The backs of both legs where the skin had come off indicated flogging, five marks on one leg and seven on the other. The big toe on the left leg was crushed", he said.
Dr. Shahram A’zam, 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.
“Ms. Zahra Kazemi was accompanied by three guards and a written diagnosis of hemorrhage as a result of digestive problems. Dr. A’zam 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". 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. A’zam said, adding: “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. A’zam 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. A’zam said, "that I understood the political implications of her condition."
Though senior Iranian officials have at various times acknowledged that Ms. Kazemi was murdered by state security officers, the official Iranian position is that Ms. Kazemi died after she fainted, fell and hit her head.
The dramatic and tragic death of the photojournalist created a political row between Iran and Canada that has tried to pressure the Iranian regime, without visible success, into reopening the case. Canada recalled its ambassador to Iran,m but latter named another one.
Dr. A’zam fled Iran last August under the guise of seeking medical treatment in Finland. He later went to Sweden and from there applied for political asylum in Canada. This month he received landed-immigrant status as a refugee sponsored by the Canadian government.
He, his wife and 12-year-old daughter landed in Canada on Monday. For security reasons, he has not revealed where in the country they intend to settle.
Dr. A’zam wants to testify to what he saw in a public hearing, he said, in hopes that the truth about Ms. Kazemi's death will renew worldwide attention on her case, and ultimately lead to the "indictment" of Iran's Islamic Republic.
What the doctor, Tehran ER physician Shahram Azam found:
*Her entire body carried strange marks of violence."
*Bruised from forehead to ear
*Two broken fingers
*Broken and missing fingernails
*Severe abdominal bruising
*Evidence of 'very brutal rape'
*Swelling behind the head
*Burst ear membrane
*Deep scratches on the neck
*Evidence of flogging to the legs
*Crushed big toe
What the Iranians said:
'The death of the late Kazemi was an accident due to a fall in blood pressure resulting from hunger strike and her fall on the ground while standing.'
-Iranian judicial branch, July 28, 2004
This outcome came as no surprise to Dr. A’zam. 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. A’zam'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."
Given that Ms. Kazemi's entire body was testimony to the use of torture, Dr. Azam said, he felt he had no choice but to find a way to tell the truth. He knew he couldn't do this in Iran. "I'd meet a fate as bad as hers. I discussed it with my wife, and we both agreed that we should leave."
He and his wife of 19 years, Forouzan, made the decision together, he said. The tale of their escape reads like the plot of an espionage thriller.
Bound by the rule that bars military men from leaving Iran except on official duty, Dr. A’zam had to find an excuse to seek special permission to go abroad without arousing suspicion.
The chronic injury he'd suffered as a 15-year-old soldier in the Iran-Iraq war solved the problem. He was allowed to seek special treatment in the West on condition that he left the deeds of the family house in Tehran as collateral.
Dr. Azam used Sweden, where he has family, as a base to wait for a courier who would take out of Iran documents that prove his case. Meanwhile, he was searching for Ms. Kazemi's son, Stephan Hashemi, who said he would not rest until he finds justice for what happened.
"I'm continuing what my mother has started by standing up to the Iranian regime," he said.
Eventually Mr. Hashemi and his lawyers came to Stockholm for a face-to-face meeting, Dr. A’zam, during which he warned them that he was not looking for publicity or a scandal. “I'm only looking for a judicial following of the case. I would like this case to be taken up by democratic states and human-rights organizations, leading, hopefully, to the indictment of the Islamic Republic", he stressed.
In interviews that began in Stockholm last December, Dr. A’zam explained why he couldn't keep what he'd observed to himself.
"I'd say that I am primarily a member of the human race, and then I am an Iranian, then a physician," he said.
"Meanwhile, I'm also a father, a husband and so on. As a doctor, I have taken the oath of Hippocrates, whereby I have sworn to help humanity to my utmost, to safeguard the health and well-being of patients, irrespective of race, sex or religion."
He wants to testify at a hearing that will make clear to the world what he knows, he said. To his mind, he has observed a death caused by torture, and keeping quiet about it would make him an accessory.
He added that he hopes his testimony will set in motion a process whereby all the available evidence will be collected, examined and discussed by an international court to show how, in the Islamic Republic, a person on the street can be captured, reduced to pulp within five days, and discarded.
"Events in and around Iran right now suggest we are at a watershed", the Doctor said, explaining:
"The world is more sensitive than usual to human rights abuses in my country. Even inside the country, the cost to the regime of arbitrary arrests and killings has gone up. At the very least, my testimony could force the power holders in the country to realize that they might have to pay up", he stated.
Dr. A’zam believes that the dominant political mood in the country is an ardent desire for change, coupled with a weariness of violence.
"A friend of mine said that in 1979, when the heads of the shah's regime were executed without trial, and the intellectuals, the political organizations and the general public did not protest, they sowed the seeds of the violence and the executions in prisons in the late 1980s. This time we do not want any revenge at all. We joke among ourselves, saying: 'We are prepared to pay Khameneh’i out of our own pockets if he just goes".
He added: "I'm quite ashamed and humiliated when I hear that there are doctors who contribute to torture, who are prepared to harm, rather than heal. For my part, what has happened and I know about, should not be allowed to be repeated". ENDS KAZEMI REPORT 1405