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Last Updated: Friday, 13 February, 2004, 11:14 GMT
Mystery death highlights divisions in Iran

By Jim Muir
BBC correspondent, Tehran

Zahra Kazemi returned to her Iranian homeland last summer after living for 30 years in France and Canada.

Iran: A Murder Mystery
2100, BBC Two (UK)
Sunday, 15 February 2004

As a photojournalist with a yen for tough places, she hoped to use Tehran as a base for lengthy assignments in neighbouring countries. But within a matter of weeks, she lay dead in a Tehran hospital.

Who killed her, and why?

That question was to trigger a major battle between Iran's feuding reformists and hard-liners. Zahra's death would cast a spotlight into some of the darker corners of the Islamic regime.

The facts

Zahra Kazemi was approached by guards outside Tehran's Evin Prison at 1740 on 23 June 2003, after she was spotted taking pictures there.

There were signs saying "No Photography".

She had been photographing people who were waiting outside the jail for relatives or friends taken there after being arrested during street disturbances.

She was told to leave her cameras and come back the following day to collect them. She refused and was taken inside.

Evin Prison, Tehran
Tehran's notorious Evin Prison

Over the next three days, she was passed between three different authorities inside Evin: officials from the hard-line judiciary, the police, and the reformist intelligence ministry.

While being questioned by intelligence ministry interrogators late in the afternoon of 26 June, she started becoming seriously ill.

Within hours, she was bleeding from the nose and vomiting blood.

She was taken first to the prison infirmary, and then, around midnight, transferred by ambulance to a military hospital in the city.

The next morning, she slipped into a terminal coma.

By the time she was admitted to intensive care at 1330 - 13 hours after reaching the hospital - and given a brain scan, she had already been brain-dead for several hours.

Thirteen days later, on 10 July, she was declared dead. The head of foreign press at the Information Ministry, Mohammad Hossein Khoshvaght, said she had died of a stroke.

That could have been the end of the story. Ten years ago, it might well have been. But things have changed in Iran.


The very day after the death-by-stroke announcement, the reformist President, Mohammad Khatami, ordered an immediate inquiry.

Just three days later, his Vice-President, Mohammad-Ali Abtahi, announced its main conclusion: Zahra had died from a brain haemorrhage caused by a blow to the head.

The affair rapidly developed into an extraordinary public row between different agencies of the Islamic regime, split between reformists and hard-liners.

Zahra Kazemi
The death of Zahra Kazemi has become a huge political issue

A campaigning reformist MP, Mohsen Armin, made a speech accusing the hard-line public prosecutor for Tehran, Judge Saeed Mortazavi, of covering up the truth.

Mr Khoshvaght, the official who had made the death announcement, said Mr Mortazavi had personally pressured him into saying it was caused by a stroke.

The battle climaxed in late August, when the judiciary indicted two intelligence ministry officials for Zahra Kazemi's "quasi-intentional" killing. The ministry publicly denounced the charge as "sheer lies" and threatened to reveal all it knew.

A single intelligence ministry interrogator, Reza Ahmadi, was put on trial on 7 October. The indictment argued that an intelligence ministry doctor had routinely examined Zahra and pronounced her fit just an hour before she began to feel unwell, and it must therefore have been a ministry interrogator who hit her.

But the reformists, taking their information from the intelligence ministry, believe that Zahra was hit right at the beginning, when she was resisting handing over her equipment to judiciary employees.

Both sides agree that warders and guards initially testified that is what happened, and later changed their testimony. Both sides accused one another of tampering with evidence and intimidating the witnesses into testifying one way or the other.


Brain specialists say it is quite possible to receive a severe head blow and to appear normal and lucid for several days before a gathering blood clot causes a life-threatening haemorrhage.

A hospital witness told us that after Zahra's admission, guards who had come with her prevented medical staff from treating her properly or carrying out the brain scans ordered several times by doctors until it was too late.

Zahra's funeral
An independent autopsy was not possible as the body stayed in Iran

The referral they brought said she was suffering from a stomach disorder.

Zahra's mother, who lives in their hometown Shiraz, told us she was pressured into agreeing that the body should be buried there, although both she and Zahra's son Stephan wanted her returned to Canada.

At the time our investigation ended, there was a kind of truce between reformists and hard-liners over the affair.

The judiciary had promised to re-investigate the case. The accused intelligence ministry man, Reza Ahmadi, had been released. We had reports that two judiciary interrogators may have been detained.

But meanwhile the factional struggle over Iran's future has moved on to the deep crisis over February's general election, in which the powerful hard-liners had banned thousands of reformist candidates from standing.

They included many of the reformist MPs who had campaigned to get at the truth of the Kazemi case.

Will it now be quietly forgotten?

Iran: A Murder Mystery was broadcast in the UK on Sunday, 15 February, 2004 at 2100 on BBC Two.

Iran: A Murder Mystery
11 Feb 04  |  This World


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