Mon, Jul 26, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Tehran court frees intelligence official

DIPLOMATIC DAMAGE Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi died last year in Iranian custody, and on Saturday the court released the sole suspect in the case

AP , TEHRAN

Qasem Shabani, lawyer for Iranian Intelligence Ministry agent Mohammad Reza Aghdam, speaks with journalists outside the Tehran courthouse yesterday.

PHOTO: REUTERS

A court has acquitted an agent charged with the killing of an Iranian-Canadian photojournalist in a case that has damaged relations between Ottawa and Tehran, the lawyer and Nobel Peace laureate representing the victim's mother said.

The Tehran court on Saturday cleared Mohammad Reza Aghdam Ahmadi, the sole defendant in the case, of killing Zahra Kazemi, who died of a fractured skull and brain hemorrhage in detention in July last year, Shirin Ebadi said.

Ebadi said the legal proceedings were flawed and threatened to take the matter to international organizations.

"I'm required to work until my last breath to make sure that justice is done to my client," Ebadi said. "I'll protest this verdict. If the appeals court and other legal stages fail to heed our objections, we will use all domestic and international facilities to meet the legal rights of my client."

Kazemi, a Canadian freelance journalist of Iranian origin, died in detention on July 10 last year after taking photographs outside a Tehran prison during student-led protests against the ruling theocracy.

Iranian authorities initially said Kazemi died of a stroke but a presidential committee later found she died of a fractured skull and brain hemorrhage.

Ahmadi pleaded innocent on July 17 and the trial was abruptly ended the next day.

Hardliners were angered when the defense team led by Ebadi accused prison official Mohammad Bakhshi of inflicting the fatal blow to Kazemi and the conservative judiciary of illegally detaining her.

Ebadi, who leads a four-member legal team, accused the court of deliberately failing to carry out justice.

"If the court had summoned the people we named during the trial for explanation, it could have accurately identified the people who committed the murder," she said.

Ebadi refused to sign the bill of indictment -- which implicated Ahmadi and cleared Bakhshi of any wrongdoing -- and demanded that the court summon several top officials, including hardline Tehran Prosecutor Saeed Mortazavi, to explain Kazemi's death.

Ebadi said filing a case against Bakhshi still remained an option before she would turn to international organizations.

Iran-Canada relations, soured by the slaying and subsequent burial in Iran against the wishes of Kazemi's son in Canada, further deteriorated after Iran rejected the idea of Canadian observers attending the trial. Relations were further strained when the Canadian ambassador was not allowed to attend the last session of the open trial last Sunday.

Canadian foreign affairs spokesman Andre Lemay declined comment on the verdict, saying he didn't have information on the reasons for acquittal, since Canadian observers were excluded from the court and received no official information.

"We don't understand the reasons for the acquittal. Lack of proof? Is this a mistrial? Are they going to set a new trial next week, in a month's time? We don't have any of those details. We're scrambling to find out as much as we can," he said.

Ebadi said the court also ruled that Kazemi's blood money will be paid from public, or government, funds. Blood money is the compensation that an Islamic court orders a convicted attacker to pay to the victim or the victim's relatives. In Kazemi's case, the money has to be paid from public funds since no murderer has been identified.

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