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Last Updated: Sunday, 13 July, 2003, 16:10 GMT 17:10 UK
Iran investigates journalist death

Iran's President Mohammad Khatami has ordered four ministers to investigate the death of a Canadian freelance photographer while in custody.

Stephane Hachemi with a photo of his mother Zahra Kazemi
Kazemi's relatives claim she was beaten in custody
Zahra Kazemi, 54, was pronounced brain dead after falling into a coma following her arrest in Tehran on 23 June.

Her relatives say she was beaten into a coma by her interrogators, but the Iranian authorities say she died of a stroke after falling ill during her first police interview.

In response to calls by human rights groups, President Khatami said he had ordered ministers to "determine the reasons for her sudden death and who is responsible for it".

The Iranian authorities announced Ms Kazemi died of a brain stroke on Friday.

Her family have now called for her body to be flown back to Canada so that an autopsy can be carried out.

Her son Stephane Hachemi told a news conference in Montreal: "I want to insist on the return of Zahra's body to Canada. That is all that is important at this point."

His appeal has been backed by the Canadian government as well as human rights groups.

"The Canadian ambassador in Tehran has been instructed to meet with the Iranian foreign minister as soon as possible," Canada's Foreign Ministry spokesman Reynald Doiron told French news agency AFP.

Spy claims

Ms Kazemi, who held an Iranian passport, was in Tehran to take pictures of the recent student protests for the British agency Camera Press.

She was reportedly detained while trying to photograph families of the arrested demonstrators outside Tehran's Evin prison.

Mohammad Khatami
President Khatami said the inquiry should clarify what happened
Iran is reported to have accused her of being a spy.

Officials said Ms Kazemi began to feel ill while under interrogation on 26 June, and was immediately taken to Baghiatollah Azam hospital where she suffered a stroke.

The human rights group, Reporters Without Borders, said it held the Iranian authorities responsible for her death after what it described as her arbitrary arrest and lack of suitable medical attention.

"Her death serves as a tragic reminder that Iran is one of the harshest regimes in the world for journalists," said Secretary-General Robert Menard.

Expressing his "sadness and concern" at her death, President Khatami ordered his ministers of culture, information, interior and justice to investigate the case.

"In a legal system, if a violation takes place it must be confronted legally. But if the law was not respected during the confrontation, then the violators should be confronted even more strongly," he was quoted as saying by the student news agency ISNA.

The BBC's Helen Leavey
"Her family claim she was beaten into a coma"

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