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Globe editorial: Once again, a Canadian dies in an Iran jail

Zahra Kazemi. Hamid Ghassemi-Shall. Homa Hoodfar. And now Kavous Seyed-Emami.

All four are Iranian-Canadians who were imprisoned and maltreated by the Iran government after their arrests on dubious charges of espionage.

Mr. Ghassemi-Shall and Ms. Hoodfar were eventually released, thanks to international pressure.

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But Mr. Seyed-Emami died on Friday in Tehran's Evin Prison, the same chamber of horrors in which Ms. Kazemi was raped, tortured and murdered in 2003.

There is a hollow familiarity to Mr. Seyed-Emami's death, and to Iranian officials' claims as to how it came about. They say he committed suicide, but they are so unsure of their ability to defend that claim that they told Mr. Seyed-Emami's family that there would be no autopsy, and ordered them to quickly bury his body without ceremony on Tuesday.

His body safely in the ground, an Iranian prosecutor announced that Mr. Seyed-Emami was a spy working for American and Israeli intelligence services – a charge based solely on alleged confessions made after his arrest, and otherwise utterly unsupported by any evidence.

The prosecutor also claimed there is a video showing Mr. Seyed-Emami taking off his shirt in his cell, calling it evidence that he was preparing to hang himself with his clothing. The video doesn't show the actual suicide, however, something the prosecutor said was unfortunate.

The suicide claim is, of course, as improbable as the espionage charges that Mr. Seyed-Emami allegedly admitted to in Evin Prison, a place where confessions are routinely wrung out of prisoners through torture. He was a respected academic and environmental activist who most likely was caught up in the arbitrary arrests carried out by Iran authorities in the wake of mass protests last month.

For the record, Mr. Seyed-Emami's "suicide" was the third in an Iran jail in one month. Two Iranian men arrested after the January protests also allegedly took their own lives. Their families were likewise ordered to bury them quickly, with no autopsy, according to the Centre for Human Rights in Iran.

And then there was Ms. Kazemi. A freelance photographer, she was arrested after taking pictures outside Evin Prison in 2003. When she died, Iranian officials said she had suffered a stroke while being interrogated. Two years later, a prison official who examined her body said she had been brutally raped, suffered a skull fracture, was missing some of her fingernails and teeth, and had been flogged.

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Small wonder Iran wants to avoid the embarrassment of an autopsy on Mr. Seyed-Emami. The Centre for Human Rights in Iran says the suicide claim has "no credibility whatsoever," which is an understatement given the regime's history and known practices.

Friends and family of Mr. Seyed-Emami, who was 63, are equally doubtful of the official version of his death. One close friend said he was "physically and psychologically very well put together." Others say he was a patriotic Iranian who fought in the war against Iraq.

Amnesty International and the CHRI are calling for an independent autopsy. The CHRI is also calling on the Canadian government to intervene. Ottawa absolutely should do that, and in the strongest terms possible.

Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said Tuesday that Canada is "seriously concerned by the situation surrounding the detention and death of Mr. Seyed-Emami. We expect the Government of Iran to provide information and answers…. We will continue to use every means at Canada's disposal to seek further information."

Strong words, but somewhat undercut by the fact Canada doesn't have an embassy in Tehran. The former Conservative government closed it in 2012, a poorly advised and much-criticized move at the time.

The Trudeau government is now in the delicate position of demanding answers about Mr. Seyed-Emami while also pursuing its goal of re-establishing diplomatic ties.

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Still, Ottawa should not back off. A UN working group said in September that Iran appears to have a policy of arbitrarily imprisoning dual-nationals. Based on the evidence, it is fair to conclude that it does this partly to antagonize international critics and assert its sovereignty.

Canada should relentlessly insist on an autopsy and, if necessary, turn to the United Nations to increase the pressure. We know Iran's cruel game. Let's not play along with it.

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