Zahra Kazemi

Beats Covered:
Local or Foreign:

Kazemi, an Iranian-Canadian freelance photographer, died in Tehran’s Baghiatollah Hospital after being transferred from government custody. Kazemi, a contributor to the Montreal-based magazine Recto Verso and the London-based photo agency Camera Press, was detained on June 23 while taking photographs of the families of detainees outside Tehran’s Evin Prison. She was held for nearly two weeks before being transferred to the hospital in a coma.​

During subsequent weeks, officials tried to cover up the circumstances of Kazemi’s death. Initially, Iranian officials maintained that the journalist had died of a stroke, and that she had complained of poor health while she was detained. On July 16, Iranian Vice President Mohammad Ali Abtahi announced that Kazemi had died from a "brain hemorrhage resulting from beatings." Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi later backed away from the statement, saying the journalist may have died from an "accident." A government inquiry released in late July 2003 concluded that Kazemi died as a result of a skull fracture likely caused by a blow to her head.

Authorities prevented an autopsy by burying Kazemi’s body in Iran against the wishes of her family in Canada. The Canadian government responded by withdrawing its ambassador to Tehran. In the ensuing months, several agents from the Intelligence Ministry were arrested in connection with Kazemi’s death.

A parliamentary commission report released in November 2003 said that members of the Iranian judiciary had been holding Kazemi in custody when she was beaten, making it unlikely, according to journalists and reformist politicians, that those responsible for her death will be brought to justice.

On July 24, 2004, an Iranian court acquitted intelligence agent Mohamed Reza Aqdam Ahmadi of the "semi-intentional murder" of Kazemi. The court cited insufficient evidence.

The trial, which began on July 17, was abruptly ended the following day. Kazemi’s legal team, headed by Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi, accused the court of refusing to hear witness testimony and to consider evidence accusing another prison official of delivering the fatal blow that killed Kazemi.

Ebadi said she would appeal the verdict in Iranian courts, but that if justice is denied, they will have no choice but to take the case "to international courts and the United Nations."

In 2005, Dr. Shahram Azam, who examined a comatose Kazemi shortly before her death, said the journalist’s body “carried strange marks of violence” and evidence of a “very brutal rape.”

In February 2018, Ali Younesi, who was Iran’s intelligence minister at the time of Kazemi’s death, admitted she was “beaten up,” which led to a brain hemorrhage after her head “hit the curb.” Younesi said Saeed Mortazavi, at the time Tehran’s prosecutor general, insisted on trying Kazemi on charges of espionage despite government investigations contradicting his claim.

Mortazavi, known as Iran’s “butcher of the press,” led a crackdown on journalists throughout his career, having shut down numerous media outlets. In late 2017, Mortazavi was sentenced to a two-year jail term in connection with the death of a detainee after 2009 anti-government protests.