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Impunity in Iran: The Death of Photojournalist Zahra Kazemi


In June 2003, photojournalist Zahra "Ziba" Kazemi was arrested in front of Tehran’s Evin Prison; she emerged after more than three days of interrogation with injuries that would prove fatal. Kazemi’s arrest and detention, and the aborted investigation efforts into her death, illustrate serious flaws in the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI)’s judicial and law enforcement systems.

A review of the information provided by both the Iranian government and individual witnesses raises serious doubts as to the legality of Kazemi’s arrest, detention and treatment in prison. These doubts, in turn, raise questions as to the independence and impartiality of the judicial system. Actions by judicial officials in the Kazemi case suggest that the judiciary, at least in circumstances where it works in conjunction with security officials, contributes to pervasive impunity for human rights violations and itself becomes a primary violator. Moreover, effective oversight and accountability are hindered by the current system in which a number of formal and informal security and intelligence organs appear to share overlapping authority to detain and interrogate accused persons.

In particular, efforts to determine the circumstances of Kazemi’s death were impeded by a series of improper actions by Tehran’s Chief Prosecutor, Saeed Mortazavi: coercion of witnesses to produce false or altered testimony; failure to cooperate with the investigation into Kazemi’s death, including failure to appear before a commission mandated by parliament to investigate Kazemi’s death; and alleged interference with the publication of that commission’s final report detailing its findings.

The trial of a junior-level intelligence ministry officer for the “semi-intentional killing” of Kazemi also displayed serious flaws, such as the court’s refusal to allow witnesses to be called (reportedly including at least twenty individuals who witnessed Kazemi’s initial arrest); failure to exclude or inquire further into visibly forged or altered documents submitted as evidence; and failure to provide counsel for the Kazemi family with access to the complete court file. Moreover, both the prosecution’s choice of defendant and the type of charge filed against him were sharply criticized by the victim’s family, who produced extensive evidence implicating other government officials.

The Kazemi case raises serious questions about whether Iran has satisfied its obligations under international law. These include guaranteeing the right to life, prohibiting the use of torture, the duty to thoroughly and impartially investigate alleged violations of international human rights law, and the duty to prevent or punish violations, through criminal sanctions if necessary. Available medical evidence indicates that Kazemi was beaten, tortured and raped while in state custody, making the explanation put forward by judiciary officials―that Kazemi became faint and fell, hitting her head―difficult to sustain. The evidence suggests that legal prohibitions against torture and protections for the rights of accused persons (under both international law and Iranian law) were violated.

The IHRDC concludes that significant and meaningful reform—particularly of the judicial system—is needed to strengthen accountability and the rule of law in Iran.


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Tagged as:

Death in Prison, Free Speech, Right to Protest