Canada Calls for Arrest of Iranian Official

Canada is calling for the arrest of a senior Iranian official in connection with the death of a female photojournalist. The woman was arrested while taking photographs of a prison. Hard-line Iranian authorities said she died of a stroke. Iranian reformists have said she was tortured to death.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Here's another sign of tension between Iran and the West.

The Canadian government has announced that it wants a senior Iranian justice official put behind bars. The Canadian foreign minister says the head prosecutor in Tehran is responsible for the arrest, torture, and death of a female photojournalist.

Richard Reynolds reports from Toronto.

RICHARD REYNOLDS reporting:

Zahra Kazemi was born in Iran, but lived in Montreal for 20 years. An accomplished photojournalist, she was well known for her work in her homeland.

Three years ago, she was in Tehran in front of the notorious Evin prison, taking pictures of the families of political detainees, when she was arrested. She died two weeks later in the custody of Saeed Mortazavi, the prosecutor general for Tehran province. Iranian reports say he ordered the arrest and supervised the torture of Kazemi.

Last week, he was sent as an observer of the inaugural session of the new United Nations Human Rights Council. The Canadian government was furious. Foreign Minister Peter MacKay used some very undiplomatic language.

Mr. PETER MACKAY (Canadian Foreign Minister): We want to see this individual, this creature, brought to justice. And we were disgusted by his appearance at the U.N. Council. We feel that his involvement in these atrocities inside his own country can't be tolerated.

REYNOLDS: Canadian Justice Department officials say they're developing a case under the United Nations Torture Convention. The Convention obliges over 140 nations to arrest those suspected of torture.

Foreign Minister Peter MacKay.

Mr. MACKAY: He's making a mockery of the death of a Canadian citizen. He sullies her memory with his presence at an international convention such as the Human Rights Council, and we're calling upon others to work with us to see that he is brought to justice and that an example is made.

REYNOLDS: The basis of the case is a report issued by Iran's former reformist president Mohammad Khatami, which said Mortazavi and his men interrogated the photographer, beat her, pulled out her fingernails, brutally raped her, and were responsible for her death two weeks later.

Experts on Iran agree that Mortazavi is one of the most conservative of the hard-line members of the Iranian government. Professor Payam Akhavan is a former war crimes prosecutor and an expert on contemporary Iran.

Professor PAYAM AKHAVAN (Professor of Law, McGill University; Former War Crimes Prosecutor): Mr. Mortazavi is one of the most notorious figures in the conservative controlled judiciary. He was one of the key figures in the repression of reformists during the presidency of Khatami, and he was known as the butcher of the free press.

REYNOLDS: Mortazavi's office shut down more than 100 newspapers over the past six years, and ordered the arrests of dozens of journalists. That said, Iranian observers say his own zealous efforts may lead to his ultimate downfall.

Prof. AKHAVAN: He's not untouchable. It's very clear now that he's been badly damaged. He cannot leave Iran again without the prospect of facing arrest. And this will inevitably play into the hands of his enemies. It will isolate him politically.

REYNOLDS: Akhavan and other experts think Mortazavi's days may be numbered. Other observers say he is a likely future justice minister. But most agree that Canada has taken the first step in a process that may bring Mortazavi down.

For NPR News, I'm Richard Reynolds, in Toronto.

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