Zahra Kazemi

Last updated

Zahra Kazemi
Zahra Kazemi before arrest.jpg
Zahra Kazemi shown before her arrest.
Shiraz, Iran
DiedJuly 11, 2003(2003-07-11) (aged 55)
Cause of deathTorture
Resting place Shiraz, Iran
Nationality Iranian-Canadian
Citizenship Iran and Canada
Education University of Paris
Occupation Photojournalist
ChildrenStephan Hachemi (son)
Parent(s)Ezzat Kazemi (mother)
Awards Tara Singh Hayer Memorial Award (2003)

Zahra "Ziba" Kazemi-Ahmadabadi (زهرا کاظمی احمدآبادی in Persian) (1948 – 11 July 2003) was an Iranian-Canadian freelance photographer, who according to the medical examiner was raped, tortured and killed by Iranian officials following her arrest in Iran.


Although Iranian authorities insist that her death was accidental and that she died of a stroke while being interrogated, Shahram Azam, a former military staff physician who used his purported knowledge of Kazemi's case for seeking asylum in Canada in 2004, has stated that he examined Kazemi's body and observed that Kazemi showed obvious signs of torture, including a skull fracture, broken nose, signs of rape and severe abdominal bruising. [1]

Her death was the first time an Iranian's death in custody attracted major international attention. [2] Because of her dual citizenship and the circumstances of her death, she has since become an international cause célèbre. In November 2003, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression honoured Kazemi with the Tara Singh Hayer Memorial Award in recognition of her courage in defending the right to free expression. [3]

Life and death

Kazemi was born in Shiraz, Iran and moved to France in 1974 to study literature and cinema at the University of Paris. With her son, Stephan Hachemi, she immigrated to Montreal Quebec, Canada in 1993, where she later gained dual citizenship as an Iranian and Canadian national. She worked in Africa, Latin-America and the Caribbean and then more frequently in various Middle Eastern countries, including the Palestinian territories, Iraq and Afghanistan. She visited the latter two countries both prior and during the US occupation. Immediately prior to her travelling to Iran, Kazemi revisited Iraq, documenting the American occupation. Recurrent themes in her work were the documentation of poverty, destitution, forced exile and oppression, and also the strength of women in these situations.


Evin House of Detention, where Kazemi was arrested and held EvinHouseofDetention.jpg
Evin House of Detention, where Kazemi was arrested and held

Traveling back to her birth country using her Iranian passport, Kazemi was allowed into Iran to take photographs of the possible demonstrations that were expected to take place in Tehran in July 2003. The demonstrations took place and were effectively crushed after the sixth day by a massive deployment of security forces and paramilitary vigilantes, or "plainclothesmen." Following the clampdown, an estimated 4000 students "had gone missing" and were thought to have been arrested for protesting and taken to Evin prison, Tehran's political prisoner detention facility. As was customary after such events, family members of the missing gathered outside of Evin prison in north of Tehran in hopes of learning what had happened to their children. On 23 June 2003, Kazemi drove to the prison to take pictures of these family members, possessing a government-issued press card that she thought made it permissible for her to work around Tehran, including at Evin.

According to Shirin Ebadi – an Iranian lawyer and former judge who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, and later became the main representative of Kazemi's family at the trial over Kazemi's death – when a prison staff member saw Kazemi taking photographs he demanded that she give him her camera, as photography is prohibited in front of the prison.

Worried that officials might harass the families whose photos she had already taken, she flashed her press card and exposed the film to the light. The guard angrily yelled at her, ‘I didn't ask you to expose your film, I told you to give me your camera’ ‘You can have the camera’, she retorted, ‘but the film belongs to me.’ She was detained, and was interrogated over the next three days by police officers, prosecutors and intelligence officials. [4]

The Evin prison staff, whom the Kazemi family's lawyers consider a party in the beatings that led to Kazemi's death, say that she had been in a sensitive area, photographing parts of the prison. Several days after her arrest, hardline newspapers ran stories of her arrest "calling her a spy who had entered the country undercover as a journalist." [4]

Kazemi insisted that she did not photograph any part of the prison, only the street and the demonstrators, who were family members of activist students jailed in the prison.


On 11 July 2003, nineteen days after she was arrested, Kazemi died in Iranian custody in Baghiyyatollah al-Azam Military Hospital. Two days later, Iran's official IRNA news agency reported that Kazemi had suffered a stroke while she was being interrogated and died in hospital. [1] This account changed to one that Kazemi had died after falling and hitting her head. [4] On 16 July 2003, Iran's vice-president, Mohammad Ali Abtahi, "conceded that Kazemi died as a result of being beaten". [1] Mohammad Ali Abtahi (Vice President of Legal Affairs) and Masoud Pezeshkian (Minister of Health and Medical Education) admitted that she died of a fractured skull as a result of being hit in the head. Abtahi claims that he was under a lot of pressure to take back the acknowledgement, but he resisted it.

Shirin Ebadi reports that security officials searched the house of an unnamed friend that Kazemi had been staying at, and "kept asking" her friend about Kazemi's "‘medical condition’ and what medicines she took daily." Officials also kept Kazemi's elderly, frail mother who had journeyed from Shiraz to see her only child, from seeing Kazemi until they had questioned her about what the medicines they insisted her daughter must be using. Kazemi's friend told Ebadi that she later realized this meant Kazemi was dead and the officials "wanted to claim that Ziba had a preexisting condition that had simply worsened in prison." [4]

The story did not become a major controversy until almost two years later, when Shahram Azam, a former staff physician in Iran's Defence Ministry, released a statement saying that he examined Kazemi in hospital four days after her arrest and found obvious signs of torture, including:

  • Evidence of a very brutal rape
  • A skull fracture, two broken fingers, missing fingernails, a crushed big toe and a broken nose.
  • Severe abdominal bruising, swelling behind the head and a bruised shoulder.
  • Deep scratches on the neck and evidence of flogging on the legs. [1]

One of the two Iranian intelligence agents charged with her death was acquitted in September 2003. The other agent, Mohammed Reza Aghdam-Ahmadi (محمدرضا اقدم احمدی), was charged with "semi-intentional murder" and his trial opened in Tehran in October 2003. In the same month, the Iranian parliament condemned Saeed Mortazavi, a Tehran prosecutor, for announcing that Kazemi had died of a stroke. On 25 July 2004, Aghdam-Ahmadi was acquitted.[ citation needed ]

Murder trial

Shirin Ebadi was the main representative of Kazemi's family at the trial, and represented them at the second and third sessions of Aghdam-Ahmadi's trial, which took place on 17–18 July 2004. In the court, Kazemi's mother mentioned that she wanted the real murderer to be prosecuted. She also mentioned that she saw Kazemi's body before the burial, upon which there were signs of torture.[ citation needed ]

Ebadi and the other lawyers of the family insisted in the court that they know that Kazemi was not killed by Aghdam-Ahmadi, and they need witnesses to be brought to the court to find the real murderer, who they guessed may be Mohammad Bakhshi, a high officer of the Evin prison. The list of witnesses they requested included Saeed Mortazavi, the general prosecutor of Tehran, Mohsen Armin, reformist member of the previous parliament Hossein Ansari-Rad  [ fa ], Jamileh Kadivar, and Mohsen Mirdamadi, Minister of Intelligence Ali Younesi, the Vice President of Legal Affairs Mohammad Ali Abtahi, Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance Ahmad Masjedjamei, the five judges who were present during Kazemi's interrogation, a few employees of the Evin prison, the president of the Baghiyyatollah hospital, and all of the medical staff who had signed her file. Judge Farahani denied all of the requests. The lawyers also quoted the official report of death that various parts of Kazemi's body had been damaged and her clothes were torn and bloody, which proves that she had been tortured.[ citation needed ]

On 14 July 2004, the Iranian government rejected requests for Canadian government observers to attend the trial, despite promises and assurances by the Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi and judiciary officials to the Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Bill Graham. The same day, Graham recalled the ambassador at Tehran, Philip MacKinnon. MacKinnon, together with the Dutch ambassador (representing the European Union) and diplomats from the British and French embassies, were later allowed to attend the 17 July trial, though not the 18 July one. Judge Farahani was quoted on 18 July as saying that "(he) made a mistake yesterday. The bar is to show the world that Iran won't bow under pressure." Hamid Reza Assefi, the spokesman for the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said "We hadn't permitted an observer from the beginning. But you should ask the reason for the ban from the court, there may have been a shortage of seats." Assefi also said that since Iran does not recognize dual nationality and Kazemi was an Iranian citizen who entered the country under an Iranian passport, never having requested her citizenship to be removed, that the case was clearly an internal affair.[ citation needed ]

The trial sessions ended on 18 July, with the lawyers of the Kazemi family insisting that the time had not been enough for proofs to be given, witnesses to be brought to court, and the murderer to be identified. They also mentioned that the court didn't pay attention to their evidence. They refused to sign the session notes. The Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister, Bill Graham, defined these events as "flagrant denial of due process".[ citation needed ]

On 24 July 2003, Judge Farahani issued his judgment, clearing Aghdam-Ahmadi of the charges. He also mentioned that since the murderer has not been found, according to the Islamic sources the blood money should be paid by the government to the family. The lawyers of Kazemi's family announced that they will appeal the case, asking for a criminal court to be established to reconsider the whole case, or completing the numerous incompletenesses of the file. They also mentioned that if the family asks, they will bring the case to the international authorities, mentioning Iran's 1954 signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The end of July saw Iran's judiciary adding "accidental fall" and "hunger strike" to the list of alleged causes for Kazemi's death. They claimed that Kazemi had gone on a hunger strike voluntarily, developed low blood pressure that made her dizzy, fell, and hit her head. Detractors point out that this story does not explain her broken bones, genital injuries or skin lacerations.[ citation needed ]

Timeline of events following Kazemi's death


In June 2005, an exhibition at the municipal Côte-Saint-Luc Library in Montreal of photos taken by Zahra Kazemi during her travels in Middle East was shut down following accusations by Jewish patrons of alleged "pro-Palestinian bias" for including five of her photographs on display that depicted scenes inside Palestinian refugee camps. Gallery officials proceeded to remove the five photographs while leaving the rest of the exhibition. In response, Kazemi's son, Stephen Hachemi, called the removal of the Palestinian photographs "a violation of my mother's spirit" and demanded that the library either display the entire collection or nothing at all. Eventually, the library closed the entire exhibition. [14]

Côte Saint-Luc Mayor Robert Libman told CBC news "It's a very complicated conflict, and to create an impression where the Palestinian cause is being martyred by oppression by the Israeli government, we don't consider that to be a fair portrait, in the future, such politically charged work won't be displayed at the library". Critics of the decision to take down the exhibition denounced it as "censorship". Naomi Klein and Aaron Maté wrote that it is "part of a disturbing pattern to silence opposition to the expansionist Israeli occupation of the Occupied Territories". According to the caption that accompanied the photo exhibition, she "illustrated the daily life of Palestinians and the problems they faced as they sought to preserve their land and their identity" in the face of "exodus, poverty, humiliation, suffering, and the ravages of war". [14]

Her life was one of the inspirations for the popular webcomic, Zahra's Paradise .

See also

Related Research Articles

Evin Prison Prison in Iran

Evin Prison is a prison located in the Evin neighborhood of Tehran, Iran. The prison is notable as the primary site for the housing of Iran's political prisoners since 1972, before and after the Islamic Revolution, in a purpose-built wing nicknamed "Evin University" due to the number of intellectuals housed there. Evin Prison has been accused of committing "serious human rights abuses" against its political dissidents and critics of the government.

Shirin Ebadi Iranian lawyer, human rights activist, and Nobel Peace Prize recipient

Shirin Ebadi is an Iranian political activist, lawyer, a former judge and human rights activist and founder of Defenders of Human Rights Center in Iran. On 10 October 2003, Ebadi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her significant and pioneering efforts for democracy and human rights, especially women's, children's, and refugee rights.

Sayyid Assadollah Ladjevardi was an Iranian conservative politician, prosecutor and warden. He was assassinated by the MEK on 23 August 1998.

Judge Masoud Ahmadi Moghaddasi was an Iranian judge, and deputy to Saeed Mortazavi. He was assassinated by a gunman named Majid Kavousifar on Tehran's Ahmad Ghasir Avenue while commuting home from work.

Human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran

The state of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran has been criticized both by Iranians and international human right activists, writers, and NGOs. The United Nations General Assembly and the Human Rights Commission have condemned prior and ongoing abuses in Iran in published critiques and several resolutions. The government of Iran is criticized both for restrictions and punishments that follow the Islamic Republic's constitution and law, and for actions by state actors that do not, such as the torture, rape, and killing of political prisoners, and the beatings and killings of dissidents and other civilians. Capital punishment in Iran remains a matter of international concern.

Abdolfattah Soltani is an Iranian human rights lawyer and spokesman for the Defenders of Human Rights Center. He co-founded the group with Mohammad Seifzadeh and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Shirin Ebadi. Along with Ebadi, Soltani served as a lawyer for the family of slain Iranian-Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi, who was allegedly tortured and murdered in Evin Prison in July 2003. Ebadi and Soltani, along with others, also represented jailed journalist Akbar Ganji during his imprisonment and long hunger strike.

Ramin Jahanbegloo is an Iranian philosopher and academic based in Canada.

Akbar Mohammadi (student) Iranian activist

Akbar Mohammadi was an Iranian student at Tehran University involved in the 18th of Tir crisis, also known as the July 1999 Iran student protests, Iran's biggest pro-democracy demonstrations since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. He later died at Evin prison, causing an international outcry.

The Defenders of Human Rights Center is an Iranian human rights organization.

The Chain murders of Iran, or Serial murders of Iran, were a series of 1988–98 murders and disappearances of certain Iranian dissident intellectuals who had been critical of the Islamic Republic system. The murders and disappearances were carried out by Iranian government internal operatives, and they were referred to as "Chain murders" because they appeared to be linked to each other.

Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani is a notable Iranian author, translator, essayist, journalist, women's rights activist and community activist.She is one of the founding members of the One Million Signatures campaign. She was also a founder of Women's Cultural Center.. The Women's Cultural Center is an "NGO that focuses on women's health, as well as legal issues". Khorasani also wrote several books about the women's movement in Iran. Khorasani was the 2004 winner of the Latifeh Yarshater Award, given by the Persian Heritage Foundation for a book they co-authored about a leading Iranian political figure

Zahra Bani Yaghoub was an Iranian medical doctor. She died in a prison in Hamedan after she was arrested by the moral police (Basij). The incident gained attention in the press due to the possible police involvement in her death.

Saeed Mortazavi Iranian jurist

Saeed Mortazavi is an Iranian conservative politician, former judge and former prosecutor. He was prosecutor of the Islamic Revolutionary Court, and Prosecutor General of Tehran, a position he held from 2003 to 2009. He has been called as "butcher of the press" and "torturer of Tehran" by some observers. Mortazavi has been accused of the torture and death in custody of Iranian-Canadian photographer Zahra Kazemi by the Canadian government and was named by 2010 Iranian parliamentary report as the man responsible for abuse of dozens and death of three political prisoners at Kahrizak detention center in 2009. He was put on trial in February 2013 after a parliamentary committee blamed him for the torture and deaths of at least three detainees who participated in the protests against President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's reelection. On 15 November 2014, he was banned from all political and legal positions for life.

Canada–Iran relations Diplomatic relations between Canada and the Islamic Republic of Iran

Canada and Iran have had no formal diplomatic relations since 2012. Canadian consular and passport services are provided through other Canadian diplomatic missions in other countries in the Middle East while Iran maintains an interests section at the Embassy of Pakistan in Washington, D.C. The government headed by PM Justin Trudeau which took office in 2015, has reportedly been reviewing relations with Iran and, like most countries, lifted most of its economic sanctions following the Iran nuclear agreement in July 2015.

Kahrizak Detention Center is a detainment facility operated by the Judicial system of Iran in southern Tehran.

2009 Iran poll protests trial refers to a series of trials conducted after 2009 Iranian presidential election. Over 140 defendants, including prominent politicians, academics and writers, were put on trial for participating in the 2009 Iranian election protests. The defendants were accused of orchestrating "colour revolution" in Iran, and “exposing cases of violations of human rights.” The trials were widely condemned by world leaders both in Iran and worldwide as a "Show trial" with coerced confessions.

The 2003 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Shirin Ebadi for "her efforts for democracy and human rights, especially the rights of women and children, in Iran and the Muslim world in general".

Zahra Bahrami, also spelled Sahra Baahrami, was a dual Dutch and Iranian citizen who was executed in Iran after being convicted by the Islamic Revolutionary Court for drug trafficking.

Narges Mohammadi is an Iranian human rights activist and the vice president of the Defenders of Human Rights Center, headed by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi.. In May 2016, she was sentenced in Tehran to 16 years imprisonment for political crimes.

Maryam Shafipour is an Iranian human rights activist. Following seven months of pre-trial detention in Evin Prison, including more than two months in solitary confinement, Shafipour was sentenced in March 2014 to seven years in prison for her political activities. Human rights organization have called for her release and condemned her conviction and prison sentence. She was released in July 2015.


  1. 1 2 3 4 INDEPTH: ZAHRA KAZEMI "Iran's changing story" CBC News Online | Updated 16 November 2005 Retrieved 15/03/08 [ full citation needed ]
  2. Ebadi, Shirin, Iran Awakening, by Shirin Ebadi with Azadeh Moaveni, Random House New York, 2006, p.199
  3. Memorial Award November 2003 ,
  4. 1 2 3 4 Ebadi, Iran Awakening, (2006), pp. 195–7
  5. Iran Admits its Security Forces Beat to Death an International Journalist; her Son Demands the Return of her Body to Canada 16 July 2003
  6. Zahra Kazemi Case Timeline, PEN Canada
  7. Montreal court hears lawsuit against Iranian government by son of photographer who was beaten to death, UN Refugee Agency 2 February 2009
  8. Impunity continues seven years after Zahra Kazemi’s death in detention, Reporters without Borders, 11 July 2010
  9. Seven years after Zahra Kazemi’s death in detention, impunity continues, IFEX 13 July 2010
  10. Iran death findings, BBC 26 August 2003
  11. Sanctions threat against Iran over Kazemi verdict,
  12. "Iran Press Service". Retrieved 19 May 2019.
  13. Iranian secret police tortured woman to death, says doctor, The Sunday Times 1 April 2005
  14. 1 2 "Email: Naomi Klein and Aaron Maté @ Montreal". The Guardian. 3 July 2005. ISSN   0261-3077 . Retrieved 19 May 2019.