Please go away

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

Please go away
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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