TEHRAN – Canada angrily recalled its ambassador from Iran to protest a decision by Tehran barring its observers from the trial of an Iranian agent charged in the beating death of a Canadian journalist.
Intelligence Ministry agent Mohammad Reza Aghdam Ahmadi is charged with the "semi-premeditated murder" of Zahra Kazemi (search), who died on July 10, 2003, 17 days after she was detained for taking photographs outside a Tehran prison during protests against the ruling Islamic establishment. Ahmadi's trial starts Saturday.
Iranian authorities initially said Kazemi, a Canadian of Iranian origin, died of a stroke in jail. But a committee appointed by the president later found that she died of a fractured skull and brain hemorrhage from a blow to the head.
Canadian Foreign Minister Bill Graham (search) asked Iran to allow foreign observers to attend the trial, and on Wednesday he voiced his "extreme outrage" at the Iranian decision.
"They had promised that we would have three observers. This is completely unacceptable behavior on their part," Graham said.
"It's a complete rejection of the rule of law. ... Justice will not be done behind closed doors in Iran."
A spokesman for Iran's Foreign Ministry defended the decision on state television Wednesday.
"Iran has no obligation to accept the request for the presence of Canadian observers in this trial," Hamid Reza Asefi said. "It is unacceptable and contrary to all international regulations."
But Graham said international legal standards require the case to be an open trial "with the right, certainly, of the family to be present to assure that justice is done."
The intelligence agent, Ahmadi, pleaded innocent in October to charges of fatally beating Kazemi during interrogations.
Ahmadi's lawyer, Ghasem Shabani, said Kazemi received the head blow while in the hands of judiciary agents before being turned over to Intelligence Ministry agents.
The killing damaged Iranian-Canadian ties and led to a round of finger-pointing between hard-liners and reformers within Iran's ruling Islamic establishment.
Judiciary officials had indicated that Canadian diplomats may be allowed to attend the trial but said they would not allow any Canadian interference in the legal proceedings. The Canadian ambassador to Tehran, Philip Mackinnon (search), attended court proceedings last year.
President Mohammad Khatami (search) said Wednesday he believed the intelligence agent was innocent.
"On the basis of the reports I've received, I believe he is not guilty. I hope that the court, with accuracy and courage, will name the person who committed (the crime)," Khatami said after a Cabinet meeting.
The Intelligence Ministry says Kazemi complained in writing on June 24 that she was beaten on the day of her arrest by a prison official, part of the hard-line judiciary.
Khatami's reformist administration demanded that judiciary officials named in the case be interrogated, but that demand has been ignored. Iranian reformists have accused hard-line Tehran prosecutor Saeed Mortazavi of illegally detaining Kazemi and then covering up facts surrounding her death.
Canada has complained to Iran about the handling of her case. Graham also implicated Mortazavi in the killing, saying agents would not act without orders from above.
Ottawa recalled its ambassador to Iran, Philip MacKinnon, soon after the murder but returned him when cooperation was promised.