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Iran set to shut down group publishing Kazemi death report: "Culture of Impunity"

Allison Hanes | National Post | August 17, 2006

The Iranian government is trying to shut down the human rights group of Nobel Peace Prize­  winning lawyer Shirin Ebadi just as a new report has emerged underscoring the "culture of impunity" that allowed the killers of Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi to go unpunished.

The banning of Ms. Ebadi's group, the Centre for the Defence of Human Rights in the Iranian capital Tehran, for not acquiring the requisite permits to operate, came just days before the release of the first comprehensive, independent report on Ms. Kazemi's death, a case in which the 2003 Nobel laureate has been actively involved.

While international outrage over Ms. Kazemi's treatment in Iranian police custody three years ago has been a thorn in the side of the Islamic republic, human rights advocates say Ms. Ebadi's  stature has permitted her to walk a fine line pushing the cause of justice in that case and others.

But the latest developments show the regime's patience may have run out, said Payam Akhavan, a McGill University law professor, human rights scholar and former war crimes prosecutor. "Apparently the [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad administration feels confident enough to begin to confront Shirin Ebadi despite her international status," he said.

"Clearly, silencing people like Shirin Ebadi is aimed at shielding people like Saeed Mortazavi from  being held accountable," he said, referring to the Tehran public prosecutor widely believed responsible for Ms. Kazemi's* fate. "It's part of the culture of impunity."

Ms. Kazemi succumbed to severe head injuries in July, 2003, after spending two weeks in the custody of Iranian authorities, who had arrested her for taking photographs outside Tehran's  notorious Evin prison.

The report by the Connecticut­based Iran Human Rights Documentation Center entitled Impunity  in Iran: The Death of Photojournalist Zahra Kazemi, questions the legality of her arrest, detention and violent mishandling under Iran's own laws. It also pieces together a detailed account of her  last days, based on the testimony of witnesses, Iranian court records, official government reports  and medical records.

A forensic pathologist ­­ chosen by the Documentation Center to analyze a medical report by a doctor who examined Ms. Kazemi when she was brought unconscious to hospital ­­ found that her fatal head injuries were most likely caused by a blow to the jaw that separated the base of her  skull from her spinal chord.

"The fracture at the base of the skull ... is indicative of a low­velocity impact generally seen in assaults from close range," the forensic expert states. "These multiple, bilateral blunt head injuries could not have been caused by a single impact or blow, which means that the reported injuries of Zahra Kazemi could not be the result of a simple fall on the floor."

Besides dispelling the explanation of an accidental fall offered by Mr. Mortazavi, the report also reaffirms that her injuries ­­ extensive bruising, crushed bones, broken fingernails ­­ could only  have been the result of torture.

Jasmine Samara, a spokeswoman for the Documentation Center, said the report, while trying to shed light on Ms. Kazemi's fate, illuminates the sorry state of the Iranian justice system.

"It illustrates a lot of systemic problems," she said. "It's not just about her."  Ms. Samara added that Iran's latest efforts to impede Ms. Ebadi's work on behalf of political prisoners are unfortunate but hardly surprising.

A recent report by the Council on Foreign Relations, entitled Iran's Waning Human Rights, also lists the crackdown on Ms. Ebadi among the litany of signs the situation in the Islamic Republic is  worsening.

"The recent death of activist Akbar Mohammadi in Tehran's Evin prison, followed by the ban of a leading human rights organization, are fresh signals of the low tolerance for dissent under  President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's regime," author Lionel Beehner states.

Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay issued a strongly worded statement late last week condemning Iran's clampdown on Ms. Ebadi.

"Any action of the part of the Iranian government to put a stop to the activities of the Centre for  the Defence of Human Rights or Ms. Ebadi and her colleagues is completely unacceptable under  the definitions of the right to organize and the right to freedom of expression," he said.

"[Ms. Ebadi] is also leading a legal team seeking justice in the case of the death of Iranian­  Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi," Mr. MacKay added.

"Any limitation that prevents them from defending the case of Kazemi would have consequences  for Canada."

Speaking to Agence France Presse over the weekend, Ms. Ebadi vowed she would not be intimidated into giving up her fight to defend the persecuted in Iran.

"The only thing that matters is to continue defending them," she told AFP. "I will go this way until the end."  Because the awarding of the Nobel Prize puts Ms. Ebadi in a position where backing down would be interpreted by the Iranian government as a victory, Prof. Akhavan said her perilous situation may leave her in an unenviable position.

"It may be, depending on how the situation develops in Iran, that Shirin Ebadi will be left to with no choice but to become a sort of Aung San Suu Kyi figure ­­ someone who may even be detained by the regime," he said, referring to the Burmese pro­democracy leader who has been under house arrest off and on since 2000.

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