Iran Hard-Liners: Canadian Journalist Died Naturally

Iran's judiciary claimed Wednesday that an Iranian-Canadian photojournalist died in custody from a fall after her blood pressure dropped during a hunger strike, a sharp shift in position on a case that has strained relations between the two countries.

The hard-line judiciary also denounced President Mohammad Khatami's (search) reformist administration, which offered Monday to help identify the murderer of Zahra Kazemi (search), accusing it of providing fuel for a "spiteful" foreign media.

"The death of Mrs. Zahra Kazemi was an accident," according to a judiciary statement, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press.

A Tehran court on Saturday cleared secret agent Mohammad Reza Aghdam Ahmadi, the sole defendant in the case, of killing Kazemi, who died of a fractured skull and brain hemorrhage in detention last July.

Kazemi, a Canadian freelance journalist of Iranian origin, died July 10, 2003, while in detention for taking photographs outside a Tehran prison during student-led protests against the ruling theocracy.

Iranian authorities initially said Kazemi died of a stroke, but a presidential committee later found she died of a fractured skull and brain hemorrhage. Ahmadi was charged with "semi-premeditated murder."

He denied it, and a team of attorneys representing the victim's mother claimed the real killer was Mohammad Bakhshi, a prison official who was being protected by the judiciary.

Bakhshi was cleared of wrongdoing before Ahmadi's trial.

"With the acquittal of the sole defendant, only one option is left: the death of the late Kazemi was an accident due to fall in blood pressure resulting from a hunger strike and her fall on the ground while standing," the statement said.

The statement accused government spokesman Abdollah Ramezanzadeh of making "irresponsible" comments when he challenged the judiciary Monday by saying Iran's Intelligence Ministry was prepared to identify the person behind Kazemi's murder if the judiciary allows it to do so.

Ramezanzadeh, it said, was inciting public opinion, an accusation that could put the judiciary and government in a direct confrontation if formally pursued as a criminal charge. However, judiciary spokesman Zahed Bashirirad said Wednesday there was no intention to indict Ramezanzdeh at the moment.

The judiciary statement said Ramezanzdeh had ignored the fact that the court gets the final say in any legal case.

"Comments tainted with political intentions have no outcome other than causing ambiguity, inciting and deceiving public opinion and providing propaganda fuel for the spiteful media," the statement said.

Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi (search), who represents the victim's mother, has rejected the court proceedings as flawed, and has vowed to "work until my last breath" to find the murderer. She threatened to take the matter to international organizations if the appeals court and other legal steps fail.

Hard-liners were angered when the legal team led by Ebadi accused Bakhshi, the prison official, of inflicting the fatal blow and the conservative judiciary of illegally detaining Kazemi.

Abdolfattah Soltani, who is on Ebadi's team, said hard-line Tehran Prosecutor Saeed Mortazavi (search) could be a possible suspect in the case. The Canadian government has blamed Mortazavi for the death, and reformists have accused him of a coverup.

Iran-Canada relations, soured by the slaying and subsequent quick burial of Kazemi in Iran against the wishes of her son in Canada, further deteriorated after Iran rejected the idea of Canadian observers at the trial.

The Canadian ambassador was barred from attending the last session of the otherwise open trial.