Skip to main content

Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi was savagely beaten, tortured and raped while in Iranian custody in 2003, according to an emergency-room doctor who examined her before she died.

The doctor has recently received political asylum in Canada.

Shahram Azam, formerly a physician on the staff of the Iranian Ministry of Defence, says he examined Ms. Kazemi, a 54-year-old Iranian-born dual citizen, at Tehran's Baghiattulah hospital early on the morning of June 27, 2003 -- four days after she was arrested while photographing a demonstration outside Tehran's Evin prison.

His account of Ms. Kazemi's condition in the days before her death, the first by a medical eye witness, confirms that she was tortured -- far more brutally than even critics of Iran's hard-line theocratic regime had believed.

"Her entire body carried strange marks of violence," Dr. Azam said. "She had a big bruise on the right side of her forehead stretching down to the ear. The ear drum was intact, but the membrane in one of her ears had recently burst, and a loose blood vessel could be seen. Behind the head, on the left-hand side, was a big, loose swelling. Three deep scratches behind her neck looked like the result of nails digging into the flesh. The right shoulder was bruised, and on the left hand two fingers were broken. Three fingers had broken nails or no nails."

Dr. Azam's account of his examination, which he intends to describe at a press conference in Ottawa today, goes on to describe severe abdominal bruising, "stretching over the thigh down to the knees." Though male doctors in Iran are not allowed to carry out vaginal exams, Dr. Azam's emergency-room nurse thoroughly examined Ms. Kazemi and found the bruising to be the result of "a very brutal rape."

The nurse told him that "the entire genital area had been damaged," Dr. Azam said.

There was also evidence Ms. Kazemi had been whipped.

"The backs of both legs where the skin had come off indicated flogging, five marks on one leg and seven on the other. The big toe on the left leg was crushed," he said.

Though senior Iranian officials have at various times acknowledged that Ms. Kazemi was murdered by state security officers -- Iran's ambassador to the United Kingdom said as much in February, but later retracted his remarks -- the official Iranian position is that Ms. Kazemi died after she fainted, fell and hit her head.

Canada has tried to pressure the Iranian regime, without visible success, into reopening the case. Canada's ambassador to Iran was withdrawn last July, after a lower-level Iranian official was acquitted in a brief trial that was widely viewed as a sham. A new ambassador was sent to Tehran in November.

Dr. Azam fled Iran last August under the guise of seeking medical treatment in Finland. He later went to Sweden and from there applied for political asylum in Canada. This month he received landed-immigrant status as a refugee sponsored by the Canadian government.

He, his wife and 12-year-old daughter landed in Canada on Monday. For security reasons, he has not revealed where in the country they intend to settle.

Dr. Azam wants to testify to what he saw in a public hearing, he said, in hopes that the truth about Ms. Kazemi's death will renew worldwide attention on her case, and ultimately lead to the "indictment" of Iran's Islamic Republic.


What the doctor found:

"Her entire body carried strange marks of violence."

-Tehran ER physician Shahram Azam

*Bruised from forehead to ear

*Skull fracture

*Two broken fingers

*Broken and missing fingernails

*Severe abdominal bruising

*Evidence of 'very brutal rape'

*Swelling behind the head

*Burst ear membrane

*Bruised shoulder

*Deep scratches on the neck

*Broken 'nose-bone'

*Evidence of flogging to the legs

*Crushed big toe

What the Iranians said:

'The death of the late Kazemi was an accident due to a fall in blood pressure resulting from hunger strike and her fall on the ground while standing.'

-Iranian judicial branch, July 28, 2004