Doctor Reveals What Happened to Kazemi
Arne Ruth and Haideh Daragahi, The Globe and Mail:
Dr. Shahram Azam, 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. Zahra Kazemi was accompanied by three guards and a written diagnosis of hemorrhage as a result of digestive problems. Dr. Shahram Azam 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," he recalled. "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. Azam said. READ MORE
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. Azam 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. Azam said, "that I understood the political implications of her condition."
Accused of spying, Ms. Kazemi had been kept in custody under the supervision of Tehran's General Prosecutor, Saeed Mortazavi, until her transfer to the Baghiattulah hospital.
Mr. Mortazavi, a crony of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was already known for his decision to close 150 newspapers within a month in 2000, thereby signalling 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.
Despite protracted diplomatic efforts by Foreign Affairs, among others, to have that decision overturned and a new investigation launched, this remains Iran's position today.
This outcome came as no surprise to Dr. Azam. 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. Azam'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. Azam 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.
"I did not tell the Swedish immigration authorities the full story. I wasn't sure that it wouldn't leak to the Iranians. I was set on coming to Canada to testify in court."
The months of uncertainty he spent in Sweden, without police protection, waiting for his asylum application to be processed, were far from easy, he said. Had neither Canada nor Europe accepted him, he would have tried to find his way to South Africa or Venezuela, he said.
Eventually Mr. Hashemi and his lawyers came to Stockholm for a face-to-face meeting, Dr. Azam said.
"I told them from the beginning that I 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."
In interviews that began in Stockholm last December, Dr. Azam 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, 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." he said.
"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."
Dr. Azam 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 Khamenei 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."
Haideh Daragahi is a Swedish-Iranian writer, journalist and academic committed to freedom of expression and women's rights issues in relation to immigrant communities.
Arne Ruth, former editor-in-chief of Dagens Nyheter in Stockholm, is a writer and lecturer on politics, culture and human rights and a winner of the Swedish Grand Award for Journalistic Achievement. He is a member of the board of the Swedish Helsinki Committee and the Article 19 Freedom of Expression Centre in London.