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Why did the Foreign Affairs Department rebuff a witness in the Kazemi affair?


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Peter MacKay’s vow to seek justice for a tortured and murdered Canadian was decisive and explicitly clear. “Mark my words,” he said as minister of foreign affairs in June 2006. “This individual is on notice. If there is any way Canada can bring this person to justice, we’ll do it.”

The individual supposedly on notice was Saeed Mortazavi, the prosecutor general of Tehran. Mortazavi supervised and may have taken part in the violent interrogations of Canadian Zahra Kazemi, who, in 2003, was arrested for taking photographs of a vigil outside Tehran’s Evin prison, where most Iranian political prisoners are held. She was tortured and brutally raped while in custody, and died of her injuries. No one in Iran has ever been convicted for the murder. But upon hearing that Mortazavi would be part of Iran’s delegation to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, MacKay asked German authorities to arrest Mortazavi if he stopped in Germany. Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Canada had requested Mortazavi be detained so he could be prosecuted for “crimes against humanity.”

The legal foundation for MacKay’s request was solid. Our Criminal Code allows Canadian courts to prosecute torturers if the torture happened outside Canada. And countries that have ratified the UN Convention Against Torture must prosecute or extradite suspected torturers on their soil. But Harper and MacKay’s rhetoric was empty. An extradition request requires a case against the accused individual, and Canada hadn’t prepared one. A government spokesman was soon backpedalling on the issue of extradition and admitted Ottawa didn’t have evidence to convict Mortazavi. But Harper tried to remain resolute. “We want to make it absolutely clear that the government of Canada has not dropped this matter,” he said.

One would think, then, that Ottawa would have been relieved by what transpired at Canada’s embassy in Ankara, Turkey, six months later.

An Iranian dissident by the name of Behnam Vafaseresht met with Canadian Embassy officials to discuss Kazemi’s death. Vafaseresht had been arrested in January 2003 and charged with “acting against national security” because of his blogs and Internet postings about Iran’s pro-democracy student movement. He was locked up in section 209 of Evin prison. Five months later, in the midst of a hunger strike, Vafaseresht heard the voice of a woman yelling and screaming while men swore and insulted her during an interrogation: “Don’t push me! What have I done?” she said. This went on for two more nights. By the third night, the woman was begging and beseeching in a loud voice, rather than yelling. “Hajji Agha,” Vafaseresht heard her say, using a respectful honorific for a mullah or other leader, “I didn’t do that.”

By this time, Vafaseresht had suffered so much as a result of his hunger strike that he was brought to the medical ward of section 209. A doctor named Akbari was taking his blood pressure when Vafaseresht saw four men, two of whom were holding batons, drag a woman wrapped in a blanket into the next room. Vafaseresht recognized three of the men. One was Saeed Mortazavi; the other two were employees of the Intelligence Ministry. The blanket was covered in blood. Akbari left Vafaseresht alone for 15 minutes while he went next door. Vafaseresht could hear the four men arguing amongst themselves: “Why did you do it?” “I didn’t do anything.” “I didn’t hit her that hard.” They were anxious while Akbari checked the woman’s vital signs.

When Mortazavi became aware of Vafaseresht’s presence, he and one of the Intelligence Ministry officials attacked him, kicking and punching him before ordering that he be taken back to his cell. He was blindfolded but was able to peer beneath the cloth and see the file belonging to the battered woman. It was labelled “Zahra Ziba Kazemi.” On his way back to the cell, Vafaseresht looked down and saw that the floor where Kazemi had been dragged was also smeared with blood. Thirty minutes later he heard the sirens of an ambulance leaving the prison. Over the next week, he was interrogated four times about what he had seen. He told his questioners only that he thought someone had gotten sick and had been taken to the medical ward.

By June 2006, Vafaseresht had been released from Evin, and legally travelled to Turkey. He met with Graeme McIntyre, a diplomat at Canada’s embassy in Ankara, and told him everything he had seen and heard. Vafaseresht said he wanted to publicize this information but needed Canada’s assurance that he and his family, who were still in Iran, would be helped to leave Iran and given asylum elsewhere. McIntyre, according to Vafaseresht, said he could give Vafaseresht’s story to the media but Canada would not help Vafaseresht or his family find refuge outside Iran. (McIntyre, now at Canada’s representative office in Ramallah, in the Palestinian Authority, referred Maclean’s requests for an interview to a spokesman at Foreign Affairs, who would not confirm or deny that any meetings took place.)

Vafaseresht, knowing that publicizing what he had seen while still living in Iran would endanger his life and his family, refused to co-operate. He returned to Iran and continued to agitate against the government there. The following summer, in 2007, a warrant was issued for his arrest and he fled to Turkey. His wife and son followed him soon after. Vafaseresht told Maclean’s that he twice met with McIntyre in Ankara. “At this time I just wanted the situation exposed. I was not expecting any help from the Canadian Embassy,” Vafaseresht said in a written statement for Maclean’s that has been translated from Farsi. Vafaseresht said he told McIntyre he was willing to testify in court about everything he had seen and heard. But McIntyre, according to Vafaseresht, said the Canadian government was not interested in his help.

Vafaseresht, a man who surely would have been a valuable witness and source of information for any legal case Canada might compile against Saeed Mortazavi, hasn’t been in touch with any Canadian diplomats or government officials since. It’s a stunning oversight, if one assumes that Stephen Harper was sincere when he said that Canada had not “dropped” the matter of Kazemi’s murder. But the available evidence suggests that Canada still isn’t serious about building a case against Mortazavi. Maclean’s interviewed Shahram Azam, a former staff physician in Iran’s Defence Ministry, who examined Kazemi four days after her arrest and found evidence of torture. Azam, who now lives in Canada and is willing to testify against Mortazavi, says no one from the Canadian government has contacted him about Kazemi since he arrived more than three years ago. Rodney Moore, a spokesman at Foreign Affairs, said that Canada did not consider the Kazemi case resolved but could not confirm if there is an ongoing investigation or extradition request, nor could a spokesperson for the Department of Justice.

Vafaseresht and his wife, Maryam Miadfar, along with their seven-year-old son Radmehr, have meanwhile moved to Germany. They are refugees and are not permitted to work, but must take German language classes. They are trying to make a fresh start, at the age of 37. They say they have not forgotten Zahra Kazemi, and many others who suffered at the hands of Saeed Mortazavi.

“We have a good position here. We don’t need anything from the Canadian government,” Miadfar said in an interview with Maclean’s. “But Behnam thinks he has a duty to the truth. He wants to reveal what happens in Iran and the kinds of things Mortazavi does in prison. Everything did not just happen to Zahra Kazemi, but to everyone in prison. There are a lot of prisoners. Nobody knows their names.”


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  1. I can’t help but wonder why this information is only coming out now? And why on earth is it not front-page news across Canada? Mr.Harper, I think you owe it to Zahra’s family to hear all that Vafaseresht has to say. If indeed you are sincere then pick up the phone and make this happen NOW.

  2. Thanks for exposing this. I’ll be sending a copy of the article plus my questions to my Conservative MP today.

  3. The West will pussyfoot with the Ayatollahs until its too late, if it isn’t already. But its up to the citizens of the Western countries to put pressure on their spineless politicians.

  4. Thank you for writing this article. I think it is up to us as Canadian Citizens to pressure our Government to do something about this issue. Ms. Kazemi was a Canadian Citizen who was raped and brutally tortured to death, and the Canadian Government has the responsibility to bring those responsible to justice.

    I have to say I am greatly disappointed in the Harper Government, as from what I have seen Mr. Harper has been quite tough on the Islamic Regime and condemned human rights violations taking place in Iran. I have to hope that this was just an oversight and that the Harper Government will take the necessary steps needed to bring those responsible for Ms. Kazemi’s death to justice.

  5. This is a sad commentary on the inaction that our government takes to help Canadians around the world. They seem to be saying that they don’t want to upset the apple cart and hurt someones feelings. I wonder how they’d react if it was one of our government officials that had been detained and tourtured ?

    This kind of attitude seems to run deep in the powers that be. where were they for Arar,Khadar et al??

  6. I send you a coment but you did not poblish it, know I understand a real free press

  7. Mazday, you just have to not swear and not include more than one link.

  8. I can not believe this story because of many reasons :
    1- According to al searches about Mr, Bahman Vafa Seresht , there is not any sign that indicates he has been a blogger, but in all Iranian web sites wrote he was convicted as member of Mojahedin Khalgh Organization (34 of this link
    2- Why in this interview he introduce himself as blogger but not a member of that organization, is there any problem with that ( this Organization Mojahedin khalgh is in Terrorists organizations list)
    3- In paragraph 7 about how Mr Vafa Seresht saw a file labeled Zahra kazemi, and all story is some how fishy if you were familiar with Islamic Republic of Iran prisons’ system you should know there is no way interrogators brought the file into Medical department of prison. Second, the night that Mss Kazemi send to Hospital Saeid Mortazavi was not in Evin prison, but according to many time line and chronology that has been written about Mss Kazemi’s Murder case non of them indicates that. Saeid Mortazavi was interrogating her the first tow night she has been in Evin and many of injuries that killed her was at this first tow night ( saeid mortazavi is the first suspect)
    4- Clearly paragraph 8 shows Mr. Vafa Seresht’s motivations which was the seeking asylum.
    My point is there is no doubt that Saeid Mortazavi is the first suspect of First degree murder of Mss Kazemi, and it is crystal clear that Canadian government is not interest to take a serious action about this case because of billion dollar business with Iranian regime, but when there are some personal gain and motivation about some political cases like this one is could reduces the credibility of the actual case if there is one!!!!!!!
    This comment is awaiting moderation. Thanks for your patience!

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