Michael Gaynor
Fate of foreign journalists in Iran
Kazemi, raped and murdered in custody; Raddatz, arrested, detained and released; Saberi, arrested, detained and ?
By Michael Gaynor
March 5, 2009

Please demand that Ms. Saberi be immediately allowed to leave Iran safely, like Ms. Raddatz, and pray that Ms. Saberi is not another raped fatality like Ms. Kazemi.

"Iran aggressively pursues these weapons [of mass destruction] and exports terror, while an unelected few repress the Iranian people's hope for freedom. ... States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world."

So said former President George W. Bush, in his first State of the Union address, on January 29, 2002.

There IS evil in the world, especially in the Islamic Republic of Iran,and identifying it as such is the first step toward dealing with it effectively, but, predictably, PBS's FRONTLINE quickly questioned the accuracy and wisdom of President Bush's public characterization in a broadcast titled "Terror and Tehran."

The introduction to the broadcast (www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/tehran/etc/synopsis.html) stated:

"Many cheered the president's tough language. Many others — in Iran, Europe, and the U.S. — were dismayed, even outraged....

"Does Iran, a complex and vibrant society that is crucial to peace and stability in the Middle East, really belong in an 'axis of evil'? Is the cause of democratic reform in Iran being helped or hindered by the U.S. war on terrorism? And if President Bush is serious about the 'axis of evil,' what is the next move in the critical diplomatic game being played by Washington and Tehran?

"In 'Terror and Tehran,' FRONTLINE explores these questions and others....

"'Putting Iran in the "axis of evil" is sort of a feel-good, one-day event,' says Elaine Sciolino of The New York Times, who has covered Iran since 1979. 'The United States President makes clear to the American people that Iran is our enemy — then what? How do you then put that phrase into effect? Do you bomb Iran? ... What comes next?'

" * * *

"...'We think it's very likely that they are violating and planning to violate further their obligations and build nuclear weapons,' former CIA Director James Woolsey tells FRONTLINE. 'Iran is probably the leading terrorist-sponsoring state in the world right now ... and one would hope they would have more sense than to share any type of weapons of mass destruction with terrorists. But I don't think one can count on the common sense of the mullahs.'"

What foreign journalists can count on is that "vibrant" Iran is a very dangerous place for them.

On March 3, 2009, in "No-Man's Land Inside an Iranian Police Station" (http://a.abcnews.com/Politics/International/story?id=6996084&page=1), ABC Chief Foreign Correspondent and intrepid world traveler Martha J. Raddatz wrote not only about the arrest of another American journalist in Iran last month, but also of her own heretofore little known arrest and detention by Iranian police in September 2008.

Ms. Raddatz:

"For more than a month now, Iran has detained American freelance reporter, Roxana Saberi. The 31-year-old journalist, whose father is Iranian, holds a master's degree from Northwestern University, is an avid soccer player, a talented pianist and a former Miss North Dakota. She had freelanced for National Public Radio and ABC Radio, and once worked for Fox as a producer in Baghdad.

"Saberi's Iranian father...said his daughter called Feb. 10 and told him she was arrested for buying a bottle of wine. He has not heard from her since.

"Iran's Foreign Ministry told the ISNA news agency that Saberi had been arrested for 'gathering news illegally' because she was working without press credentials. The spokesman for the Foreign Ministry would not say where she was being held."

Plaudits to Ms. Raddatz for publicizing her arrest and detention in Iran.

The silver lining in the tragic case of Ms. Saberi is Ms. Raddatz's article reporting her own "direct experience with the Iranian government's attitudes about 'gathering news illegally.'"

Ms. Raddatz:

"Last September, while on a trip to Tehran with my producer, Ely Brown, and my cameraman, Bartley Price, we were arrested by Iranian police for videotaping officers who were looking for women whose heads were not 'properly' covered. Ely and I were both wearing a hijab, and we all had official Iranian press credentials....

"The police loaded us into a van and had two other police vans escorting us through the city. They took Bart's camera, our press cards, and most disturbing, they took our passports.

"We had no idea where we were headed, and neither did our interpreters. When I tried to lighten up the mood in the van by joking with Ely and Bart about all of us being used to being in motorcades, the interpreter warned me not to laugh around the police, or they would think I was making jokes about them.

"We drove for close to 45 minutes before we pulled into a police station, and that is when we became worried. A busload of prisoners was just pulling out, faces pressed against the metal-meshed windows shouting for food and cigarettes. Worse yet, the police station we were taken to was 'the Anti-Narcotics Division. Ely, Bart and I all had the same thought: 'What have they hidden in our bags?'

"We sat for hours outside the office of a police official, and then we were brought in one by one to be questioned.

"'Why were you arrested?' the officer said to me. I asked him the same question.

"I explained that we were downtown taping people in a shopping district and noticed that the police came. Our cameraman started filming the police on patrol. He wrote all of this down, and then made me sign it, which I did not do until the interpreter assured me that is what it said.

"At that point the classic 'good cop bad cop' scenario started playing out. The 'good cop' said his boss would have to see the tape and then we would be freed. But the 'bad cop,' who was clearly senior, kept telling us we shouldn't have been taping the police, and it was 'a problem.'

"As we sat for hours on a row of hard chairs against a wall, we saw two boys dressed in athletic suits who couldn't have been more than 12 or 13 years old handcuffed together looking frightened. They were taken away.

"We watched a crazy scene where two of the police officers were shouting at one another and almost came to blows in front of us, shoving each other hard in the chest. We had no idea what they were arguing about.

"Every once in awhile, we would get pulled in again and someone else wanted to see the tape and ask more questions. There were frowns when they saw the images of the police on the tape, although the 'good cop' said 'no problem.'

"By early evening, still not knowing what was going on and now starting to demand information, one of the cops told us that the senior officer who needed to see the tape was not coming in until the morning. At every turn, there seemed to be one more person who had to see it before they would decide what to do with us. They all seemed scared to make a decision on their own, fearing it would be the wrong decision.

"The police said they would allow us to leave (they knew exactly what hotel we were in), but they would hold onto the passports and we could come and get them first thing in the morning. I said I wasn't leaving without my passport, but they just shook their heads. We were assured that if we arrived at eight the next morning and showed the taped to the senior officer, we would be free to leave the country.

"That didn't happen. When we arrived the next morning, there was no senior officer, and those who were there seemed angrier about the tape than the night before. I started demanding our passports and threatened to call the State Department. Talk about an empty threat!

"When I finally did call, I got an operations officer on the all-night desk. I told him that I was an ABC correspondent, and that I was being detained along with my crew and that our passports had been confiscated.

"The State Department representative said there was really nothing he could do because we don't have diplomatic relations, and said, 'You know it is five in the morning here?' Gee ... sorry to bother you. I did ask him to please make sure that he took down my name and make a note that I was being held along with my crew (in case we were never heard from again!). He said OK. I later asked a senior state department official who saw all the daily cables and traffic if he every saw that mentioned, and he said, 'No, nothing.'

"By the end of day two, we were being told the situation was serious and we had been taping illegally and that the situation would have to be looked at by yet another official. We were told that we would again have to come back the next day for our passports.

"At this point, I took a chance, a big chance since I am a woman and didn't really know how it would play. In my best voice of indignation, I called the officer a liar. I told him that they had not been honest, that we had been told for two days that we would be given our passports and allowed to leave, and they had continually lied to us. I told him that we had to leave the country.

"That little tirade at least made them stay later to deal with the bureaucracy of finding the right man to see the tape. To be honest, I am not sure what happened behind the scenes after that, but I know that two hours later, passport in hands, tape forever in Iranian hands, we left Tehran on the next flight out, and were very happy we did.

"While the situation was uncomfortable at the time, I had nearly forgotten it until I read about Roxana Saberi, whose situation is clearly far more serious. I hope she will get more help from the State Department (through the Swiss, I expect) than we did. I happen to be traveling with the new secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, in the Mideast. Her spokesman said, 'We're looking into it.'"

Famous last words! The Obama Administration needs to appreciate the danger posed by Iran and to eliminate that danger before it is too late instead of underestimate the danger as the Clinton Administration did with Al Quada even after the first attack on the World Trade Center.

The year after President Bush spoke of "an axis of evil," journalist Zahra Kazemi was savagely killed while in Iranian custody.


"Zahra 'Ziba' Kazemi-Ahmadabadi...(1949 — July 11, 2003) was an Iranian-Canadian freelance photographer, residing in Montreal, Canada, who died in the custody of Iranian officials following her arrest.

"Although Iranian authorities insist that her death was accidental and that she died of a stroke while being interrogated, Shahram Azam, a former military staff physician who used his purported knowledge of Kazemi's case for seeking asylum in Canada in 2004, has stated that he examined Kazemi's body and observed that Kazemi showed obvious signs of torture, including a skull fracture, broken nose, crushed toe, missing fingernails, broken fingers, signs of brutal rape, marks from flogging, deep scratches on her neck, and severe abdominal bruising. Iranian officials claimed that Azam had been afflicted with mental health issues and that he had been discharged before Kazemi's death. The Canadian government, as well as Kazemi's family and supporters, consider her death to be state-sanctioned murder.

"Her death was the first time an Iranian's death in custody attracted major international attention. Because of her joint citizenship and the circumstances of her death, she has since become an international cause célèbre. In November 2003, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression honoured Kazemi with the Tara Singh Hayer Memorial Award in recognition of her courage in defending the right to free expression."

"Traveling back to her birth country using her Iranian passport, Kazemi was allowed into Iran to take photographs of the possible demonstrations that were expected to take place in Tehran in July, 2003. The demonstrations did materialize but were effectively crushed after the sixth day by a massive deployment of security forces and paramilitary vigilantes, or 'plainclothesmen.' Following the clampdown, an estimated 4000 students 'had gone missing' and were thought to have been arrested for protesting and taken to Evin prison, Tehran's political prisoner detention facility. As was customary after such events, family members of the missing gathered outside of Evin prison in north Tehran in hopes of learning what had happened to their children. On June 23, 2003, Kazemi drove to the prison to take pictures of these family members, possessing a government-issued press card that she thought made it permissible for her to work around Tehran, including at Evin.

"According to Shirin Ebadi — an Iranian lawyer and former judge who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, and later became the main representative of Kazemi's family at the trial over Kazemi's death — when a prison staff member saw Kazemi taking photographs he demanded that she give him her camera, as photography is prohibited in front of the prison.

"Worried that officials might harass the families whose photos she had already taken, she flashed her press card and exposed the film to the light. The guard angrily yelled at her, 'I didn't ask you to expose your film, I told you to give me your camera' 'You can have the camera,' she retorted, 'but the film belongs to me.' She was detained, and was interrogated over the next three days by police officers, prosecutors, and intelligence officials.

"The Evin prison staff, whom the Kazemi family's lawyers consider a party in the beatings that led to Kazemi's death, say that she had been in a sensitive area, photographing parts of the prison. Several days after her arrest, hardline newspapers began running stories of her arrest 'calling her a spy who had entered the country undercover as a journalist.'

"Kazemi had insisted that she did not photograph any part of the prison, only the street and the demonstrators, who were family members of activist students jailed in the prison."

"On July 11, 2003, nineteen days after she was arrested, Kazemi died in Iranian custody in Baghiyyatollah al-Azam Military Hospital. Two days later, Iran's official IRNA news agency reported that Kazemi had suffered a stroke while she was being interrogated and died in hospital. This account changed to one that Kazemi had died after falling and hitting her head. On July 16, 2003, Iran's vice-president, Mohammad Ali Abtahi, conceded that Kazemi died as a result of being beaten. Mohammad Ali Abtahi, the Vice President of Legal Affairs and Masoud Pezeshkian, the Minister of Health and Medical Education) admitted that she had died of a fractured skull as a result of being hit in the head. Abtahi claims that he was under a lot of pressure to take back the acknowledgement, but he resisted it.

"Shirin Ebadi reports that security officials searched the house of an unnamed friend that Kazemi had been staying at, and 'kept asking' her friend about Kazemi's '"medical condition" and what medicines she took daily.' Officials also kept Kazemi's elderly, frail mother who had journeyed from Shiraz to see her only child, from seeing Kazemi until they had questioned her about what the medicines they insisted her daughter must be using. Kazemi's friend told Ebadi that she later realized this meant Kazemi was dead and the officials 'wanted to claim that Ziba had a preexisting condition that had simply worsened in prison.'

"The story did not become a major controversy until almost two years later when Shahram Azam, a former staff physician in Iran's Defence Ministry, released a statement saying he examined Kazemi in hospital, four days after her arrest and found obvious signs of torture, including:

  • Evidence of a very brutal rape.

  • A skull fracture, two broken fingers, missing fingernails, a crushed big toe and a broken nose.

  • Severe abdominal bruising, swelling behind the head and a bruised shoulder.

  • Deep scratches on the neck and evidence of flogging on the legs.

"Her death and the subsequent burial in Iran sparked a sharp diplomatic response from Canada, which insisted that her body be returned to her Canadian son, Stephan Hachemi. The Iranian government claimed the burial had happened in Iran, preventing independent examination of Kazemi's corpse, following the wishes of Kazemi's mother. Kazemi's mother lawyer Ebadi reports that Kazemi's mother told her authorities had threatened her. 'They said they would forever harass all of Ziba's [Kazemi's] friends here if we did not agree' to burial in Iran. 'I was upset and confused, worried about what might happen if I said no. So I consented ...'"

"One of the two Iranian intelligence agents charged with her death was acquitted in September, 2003. The other agent, Mohammed Reza Aghdam-Ahmadi..., was charged with 'semi-intentional murder' and his trial opened in Tehran in October, 2003. In the same month, the Iranian parliament condemned Saeed Mortazavi, a Tehran prosecutor, for announcing that Kazemi had died of a stroke. On July 25, 2004, Aghdam-Ahmadi was acquitted."

Ms. Raddatz and her crew had their tape confiscated, but got their passports back and left safely and unassaulted after a few days.

Ms. Kazemi may or may not have been a bold as Ms. Raddatz, but she was not as prominent or as fortunate.

Please demand that Ms. Saberi be immediately allowed to leave Iran safely, like Ms. Raddatz, and pray that Ms. Saberi is not another raped fatality like Ms. Kazemi.

© Michael Gaynor


The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.
(See RenewAmerica's publishing standards.)

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Michael Gaynor

Michael J. Gaynor has been practicing law in New York since 1973. A former partner at Fulton, Duncombe & Rowe and Gaynor & Bass, he is a solo practitioner admitted to practice in New York state and federal courts and an Association of the Bar of the City of New York member... (more)


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