Last November, I published a story about an Iranian exile by the name of Behnam Vafaseresht who claimed to have been jailed at the Evin Prison in Tehran at the same time that Canadian journalist Zahra Kazemi was held and eventually murdered there. Vafaseresht said he had information implicating Saeed Mortazavi, the prosecutor general of Tehran, in Kazemi’s death.
This is significant because in 2006, then foreign affairs minister Peter Mackay said of Mortazavi: “Mark my words. This individual is on notice. If there is any way Canada can bring this person to justice, we’ll do it.” Prime Minister Stephen Harper also claimed he had asked Germany to detain Mortazavi should he set foot in the country so that he could be prosecuted for “crimes against humanity.”
Vafaseresht told Maclean’s that he met with Canadian embassy officials in Ankara in 2006 and 2007 and offered to testify any court case that Canada might launch against Mortazavi. He said Canadian officials, though they interviewed him in detail, were not interested in his help. He sought refuge in Germany and hasn’t heard from Canada since.
At the time, Foreign Affairs would neither confirm nor deny that any meetings with Vafaseresht took place. I therefore filed an access-to-information request about the alleged meetings and received a partial response last week, eight months after filing it – which makes Foreign Affairs’ response time lightning fast compared to the transparency-phobic folks at the Canadian International Development Agency.
The response to my access request contains some interesting material. Most importantly, it confirms that embassy officials did meet with Vafaseresht in Ankara, and that the story he told them implicating Mortazavi in Kazemi’s death matches what he told me last year. It also confirms that Vafaseresht said he was offering information about Zahra Kazemi without expecting anything in return.
There is nothing in Foreign Affairs’ response to indicate that Canada considered using Vafaseresht’s information in a legal case against Mortazavi. It is possible that this information will turn up when and if my access-to-information request is answered in full. And Canada might have had good information to suggest that Vafaseresht’s story is not credible. But I also spoke to Shahram Azam, a former doctor in Iran’s Defence Ministry, who examined Kazemi four days after her arrest and found extensive evidence of torture. Azam now lives in Canada and says he is willing to testify against Mortazavi. But he too says no one from the Canadian government has talked to him about Kazemi either. MacKay said Canada would do whatever it takes to bring Mortazavi to justice. This apparently doesn’t include talking to the doctor who examined Kazemi’s broken body.
The response to my access request also contains many of the emails and memos that flew back and forth in Foreign Affairs in response to my initial requests for information about Vafaseresht last fall. These might be of more interest to other journalists, but I pass them on anyway.
For those of you blessed not to work in media, it is close to impossible to get a coherent and timely response from Foreign Affairs. You, as a journalist, will call with a very specific question. Days go by. A media spokesperson calls back and reads from a prepared statement that often has nothing to do with what you asked in the first place. You point this out. The spokesperson repeats his prepared lines. Your ears start to bleed.
I now have a better idea of what’s happening on the Foreign Affairs end of these exchanges. A bit of background for starters. There was a time when the Canadian government didn’t treat its diplomats and analysts like untrustworthy children. You could mention you were a journalist at some sort of embassy shindig, and they wouldn’t start to look around nervously. Hell, you could even go out for lunch with some of them. That’s all over. If, for example, I want to know about a meeting that took place between an Iranian dissident and a Canadian diplomat in Ankara, and I email that diplomat, he’ll refer me to a spokesperson in Ottawa, who wasn’t at the meeting and has no idea what I’m talking about. It’s not the diplomat’s fault. He’s simply not allowed to talk to me.
This doesn’t mean that the Foreign Affairs media people back in Ottawa ignore press inquiries. They spend an awful lot of time working on them, just not on answering the questions they are asked. In this case, after several days, and numerous phone calls and emails, about all Foreign Affairs could tell me was that they could not confirm or deny that Canada’s embassy in Ankara met with Vafaseresht and that Canada does not consider the Zahra Kazemi case closed.
Here are some of the internal emails – to and from a dozen different people – that it took for Foreign Affairs to arrive at their statement:
“I think we can go back to the reporter maintaining our privacy line but rebutting the Kazemi closed allegation by reiterating our strong commitment and reference our poor relations with Iran and the tenets of the Controlled Engagement Policy….”
“I would be grateful for you guidance, as we are concerned that a very negative story might be published on the basis of the above allegations….”
“We could, in addition to the previous line, perhaps add a line such as: If any meeting(s) took place, we would need the explicit written consent of the person who had met with the Canadian official, in order to release any information about any meeting(s) and what was talked about….”
[This is a popular government tactic. I obtained Vafaseresht’s explicit written consent, and Foreign Affairs still told me nothing.]
“While we recognize that the written permission line is often used in similar consular cases, we are not comfortable with the written permission option….”
“Here are the lines that PCO [Privy Council Office] approved for use when the reporter originally called on this story….”
“If pressed, [we could say,] ‘Sensitive information provided to the Canadian Government is kept in the strictest confidence to protect those who provide it….’”