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Canadian government uses Kazemi case to attack Iran

Zafar Bangash

Canadian officials, egged on by virulently anti-Muslim media and secular Muslims, are in a lather about the case of one Zahra Kazemi, who died in a hospital in Tehran last year. She was arrested on June 23, 2003, while taking photographs of an illegal protest in a prohibited area outside Evin prison. When the police demanded that she hand over the film and camera, she refused and reportedly became violent and abusive; she was arrested and taken for questioning. Held at Evin prison, she refused to eat or drink for three days, after which she is reported to have gone into a coma. Rushed to hospital, she died there on July 10. An autopsy established that she may have died of a blow to the head, causing a brain haemorrhage, although doctors differ about whether the blow was suffered in prison or whether she was injured earlier in life and the injury was exacerbated by her starving herself.

Reports about her death have been clouded by political considerations. On July 18 Mohammad Reza Aghdam Ahmadi, the person accused of causing her "semi-intentional death", was acquitted by a court in Tehran, resulting in the withdrawal of Philip MacKinnon, Canada's ambassador to Tehran. Newspaper editorialists and commentators have called for breaking off diplomatic relations, imposing economic sanctions (not likely, as Canada exports more to Iran than it imports from there) and taking the matter to the UN. Some have even suggested that Canada lodge a case at the International Court of Justice. Kazemi's son, Stephen Hachemi, has been turned into a media celebrity, and his strident pronouncements against Iran are treated as virtual demarches to the Canadian government. He has demanded that his mother's remains be brought to Canada for burial, although Kazemi's mother in Shiraz--her next of kin--had signed a consent form for her burial there. Her mother now says that she was "pressured" into doing so. It will come as no surprise to anyone if she uses this episode as an excuse to seek refugee status in Canada.

Lost in this political game are basic facts about the case and what happened to Zahra Kazemi. Also of interest are the actions (or inaction) of the Canadian government in other cases involving Muslims. Why this case has been turned into a crisis has much to do with the presence of a large expatriate Iranian community in Canada. The Canadian government is clearly pandering to the prejudices of these expatriates, most of them opposed to the Islamic Republic. It fits in neatly into the mindset that others can never do anything right, while the West cannot do anything wrong.

Originally Iranian, Zahra Kazemi entered Iran sometime in June 2003 on her Iranian passport, although she also held Canadian citizenship (Iran and Canada do not have a dual-nationality agreement). Because she used her Iranian passport, Iran treated her as an Iranian citizen, and has said that her case is none of Canada's business. While the demand that those who caused her death be brought to justice is reasonable, to dictate how the trial be conducted, who should be present and what verdict the court deliver is gross interference in the affairs of another country. Besides, members of Kazemi's own family, Canadian officials and media commentators have all repeatedly stressed that Ahmadi is not responsible for Kazemi's death; according to them he was being used as a "scapegoat": yet when the case against him was dismissed, they still cried foul. The manner in which courts conduct their business in Iran has also been questioned, clearly indicating that Islamic court proceedings are unacceptable to the West. An offer by the Iranian government to pay blood-money to her next of kin, in accordance with Islamic law, has been turned down by Hachemi and the Canadian government.

Apart from all this, Iran has its own concerns about how the Canadian government has dealt with the case of Keyvan Tabish, an 18-year-old Iranian who was shot dead by a Canadian policeman at about the same time as the Kazemi saga began. After a preliminary investigation it was announced that the police officer had acted in self-defence, and that he would not be charged. Bill Graham, then Canadian foreign minister, dismissed the comparison between the two cases as "apples and oranges." Canadian policemen are becoming almost as trigger-happy as the American police, and those who kill innocents are seldom called to account. There is an attitude of stonewalling to such cases, on the grounds that the police work under tough conditions and should not be subjected to unnecessary scrutiny.

Canada's moralizing attitude would carry weight if its own record were better. There are at least five Muslims in Canadian jails who have been held without trial for several years. Their only crime is that they are Muslim and have been declared a "security threat" by intelligence agencies. Then there is the ongoing saga of Maher Arar from Ottawa, who was arrested by the Americans in New York in August 2002 and deported to Syria. Canada was fully aware of his arrest and deportation, but did little to help; in fact Canadian intelligence agencies gave the Americans his personal details. At an inquiry forced upon the government, when the Royal Canadian Mounted Police present its own 53-page report, each and every word was blacked out because of "security" considerations. This outrageous behaviour has gone unchallenged.

A number of other Canadians, arrested by the US, were sent to other countries to undergo torture; some are still there. The Canadian government remained largely indifferent until the Arar case was forced upon it by some Canadian MPs. After months of relentless campaigning Arar was released, after the US insulted Syria as an outlaw regime. Canada is also ignoring the plight of Canadian-born Omar al-Khadr, arrested in Afghanistan when he was only 15 years old. Accused by the Americans of being an al-Qa'ida supporter and of killing an American soldier, Omar has been in Guantanamo Bay since early 2002. He has not appeared before any court, has had few consular visits from Canadian officials, and there is not even a hint that Canada might withdraw its ambassador from Washington. The difference between the Kazemi and Khadr cases is linked by some to Canada's vital economic links with the US. The fact is that Ottawa cannot stand up to US bullying; Canada's position is not based on moral considerations but on political considerations: some Canadians are dispensable; others are not.

There is a long history in the West of other peoples (especially Muslim activists) being treated as less than equal. In May 1992 Dr Hasan Turabi, a leading political figure in Sudan, was viciously attacked at Ottawa airport by Badrud-Din, a Sudanese exile, a karate expert. Dr Turabi had just left a meeting with Canadian foreign ministry officials; warnings from Canadian intelligence agencies that he was at risk, and should be provided proper security, were ignored by Ottawa. His assailant nearly killed Dr Turabi; he remained in a coma for two weeks. A court in Ottawa acquitted his assailant of a crime perpetrated in public in broad daylight; his defence lawyer said that his client was "provoked" by the presence of Dr Turabi.

A year later Dr Mohammed Lavasani, Iran's ambassador to Ottawa, and a number of his staff were attacked and seriously injured by members of the Mujahideen-e Khalq Organization (MKO), who entered the embassy by ladder. They had the audacity to film the entire attack, in which the ambassador sustained several injuries, including a fractured arm and fractured ribs. Furniture was smashed, files were taken away, and a number of other staff were viciously beaten up. Agents of the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service, who kept the embassy under constant surveillance, made no attempt to stop the assailants; nor did they notify the police. The MKO terrorists were also acquitted by a Canadian court.

The Canadian government is also guilty of hypocrisy in its approach to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). When the ICJ delivered its verdict of "illegal" on Israel's "apartheid wall" on July 9, Canada said that the ICJ was not the appropriate forum to deal with such matters. For years western governments have lectured the Palestinians about eschewing violence and pursuing peaceful means to secure their rights. When the Palestinians take the most peaceful route, Western moralizers say that it is "inappropriate". When the matter was brought before the UN general assembly on July 21, Ottawa joined such democracies as Micronesia and Honduras in abstaining from censuring Israel. 150 countries had the courage to say that what Israel is doing is immoral and illegal.

Were Canada to adopt a more balanced approach, its position in Kazemi would carry more authority. Without improving its own behaviour and attitudes, it cannot lecture others.

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 33, No. 6

Jumada' al-Akhirah 14, 14252004-08-01

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