Canadian Journalist's Death Part of Iran Power Struggle

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The death of an Iranian-Canadian photojournalist in detention is being bitterly debated by Iran's elected reformers, who hold hard-liners directly responsible for the death, and unelected but powerful conservatives, who blame the victim.

Vice President Mohammad Ali Abtahi (search) said earlier this week that Zahra Kazemi (search), a freelance photographer, died of brain hemorrhage "resulting from blows inflicted on her."

Kazemi, 54, a freelance photographer from Quebec, was detained in Tehran on June 23 as she took photos of Tehran's notorious Evin prison (search) during street demonstrations. She was never charged with any crime. Authorities had tried to keep journalists from covering the protests.

Abtahi, a close ally of reformist President Mohammad Khatami (search), said an investigation was continuing. He stopped short of confirming accusations by Kazemi's family and friends that the photographer was beaten to death by Iranian security agents who detained her as she covered the demonstrations led by students eager for reforms.

Prominent reformist lawmaker Ali Shakourirad — another Khatami ally — blames the hard-line head of the judiciary, Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, and Tehran Prosecutor Saeed Mortazavi for the death and the resulting international scandal.

Reformers have long held Shahroudi and Mortazavi responsible for a crackdown on Iranian journalists that started years before Kazemi's death.

As a judge, Mortazavi was behind the closure of more than 90 pro-democracy publications and the imprisonment of dozens of writers and political activists over the past three years. Shahroudi promoted him to the rank of Tehran prosecutor earlier this year.

"The responsibility for the death of Kazemi rests with the Tehran prosecutor and the head of judiciary," lawmaker Shakourirad said Friday. "There is consensus in Iran that Mortazavi is not competent. He tried to conceal the truth and now he has to answer many questions."

Mortazavi is widely believed to have been behind the initial government announcement, now officially discredited, that Kazemi died of a stroke and to have pushed for quick burial after her death.

A committee appointed by the president to investigate the death stepped in Tuesday to prevent the burial, a move followed the next day by the vice president's announcement that she died of a beating.

Kazemi's death and the presidential intervention is a reminder of the 1998 killings of at least four political dissidents, two of them writers and journalists.

In that case, it was Khatami's intervention that forced the hard-line Intelligence Ministry to acknowledge its agents were involved, though the ministry said they were rogue operatives.

Hamid Reza Taraqi of the hard-line Islamic Coalition Society (search), insisted in an interview Friday that Kazemi herself was to blame for her fate.

"Kazemi was illegally taking photos, was detained and a situation developed naturally in the process of interrogation ... She was not tortured. It was due to her own physical condition. She herself should be blamed, not the ruling establishment," Taraqi said.

Taraqi accused the president of "magnifying" Kazemi's death at the expense of authorities.

"Weakening the judiciary benefits Iran's enemies," he said.

In the struggle for power in Iran, hard-liners, who resist any attempt to tamper with the late Ayatollah Khomeini's vision of a country ruled by clerics, lack popular support. Reformers who want democracy and social freedoms lack control of such key centers of power as the judiciary and the security services. Last month's protests were among the largest in years.

Political analyst say Kazemi's death will only worsen Iran's international image.

"It will also encourage the international community to condemn Iran for human rights violations," said university professor Davoud Hermidas Bavand. "The death strengthens the position of countries like U.S. that believe dialogue has failed to encourage Iran to induce changes in its behavior."