Iran says journalist arrested for spying 'died after beatings'

A diplomatic row has erupted after Iran said yesterday that a Canadian-Iranian photojournalist was beaten to death after being arrested outside a prison over spying allegations.

Zahra Kazemi, 54, died on Saturday after spending two weeks in a coma. She fell in to the coma during her interrogation by Iranian authorities. Mohammed Ali Abtahi, the country's Vice-President, said: "According to a report by the health minister, she died of a brain haemorrhage resulting from beatings."

But Massoud Pezechkian, the health minister, was quoted as saying that although the cause of death was a brain haemorrhage, the investigation was continuing. "I examined the body myself, and there were no cuts or bruises of the face," he is reported to have said.

Iran is refusing to allow Canada to carry out its own investigation into the death. Ms Kazemi's 26-year-old son, Stephan Hachemi, has demanded that his mother's body be returned to Canada to allow an autopsy to be carried out. But Iranian authorities said the journalist, who entered the country on her Iranian passport, would be buried there.

Ms Kazemi was arrested last month outside Tehran's Evin prison, where she was taking photographs of people coming to look for arrested family members after street demonstrations that lasted 10 nights. She was accused of spying.

Two weeks later, she was hospitalised after falling into a coma. Iranian officials initially said she had suffered a "brain attack" during her interrogation.

Her death has caused shockwaves in Iran, where press freedom is a major issue in the struggle between reformists and conservatives. Five pro-reformist journalists have been arrested since Saturday, culminating in the seizure of Issa Saharkhiz, a human-rights campaigner who was reportedly arrested on charges relating to an article published a year ago.

Other prominent journalists to be taken into custody include Hossein Bastani and Vahid Ostad-Pour, of the daily newspaper Yas-e No, and Sharam Mohammed-Nia, director of the weekly Vaght. The reformist daily, Hambastegi, and the weekly, Javan, were suspended this week.

Ms Kazemi's death became a potential political flashpoint after President Mohammad Khatami ordered a ministerial investigation into her death - widely believed to have been caused by agents of the conservative judiciary.

"In a legal system, if a violation takes place, it must be confronted legally," Mr Khatami said. "But if the law was not respected during the confrontation, the violators must be dealt with even more strongly."

Journalists say the intervention of President Khatami has given them renewed hope that reformist politicians in positions of power will fight for their rights.

"The press will feel stronger if there is a conviction on this," Shirzad Bozorghmehr, editor of the English-language reformist daily, Iran News, said. "But given the atmosphere of recent weeks, they haven't yet [campaigned on] it as they might otherwise have done."

Mr Khatami's popularity in Iran has fallen sharply since his second landslide election victory in 2001, because his reformist programme has run into the ground. Many people say his cautious approach towards hardline conservatives, who have blocked his moves towards change, has taken the momentum from the reformist movement.

Mr Bozorghmehr said: "If it is proven that there was culpability in this and that it belonged to a conservative organisation, the reformists can really go back on the offensive. For Khatami personally, if he brings this to a reasonable conclusion, his prestige in the country will be enhanced."

One of the President's greatest successes was to force through the prosecution of state agents who attacked and killed dissidents in the late 1990s. The sometimes violent activities of the security forces and right-wing militias are among the biggest complaints of ordinary Iranians, who have condemned attacks on demonstrators by members of the Basij and Ansar-e Hizbollah.

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