The massive injuries suffered by Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi while in Iranian custody were so disturbing to the doctor who examined her that he felt compelled to flee the country to expose what happened.
"I am a physician who is sworn to save peoples' lives," said Dr. Shahram Azam, through an interpreter at a news conference in Ottawa Thursday. "When I saw with my own eyes someone who has been tortured, without any doubt it affected my mental state."
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Azam was working at Tehran's Baghiattulah military hospital on June 27, 2003 when the dying woman was brought in on a stretcher, unconscious. The 54-year-old Iranian-born Kazemi had been arrested earlier that month while photographing a demonstration outside Tehran's Evin prison.
Azam, a former member of the country's security forces, said he was shocked by the extent of Kazemi's injuries.
"The signs and bruises that existed, they were not caused at one time ... some looked fresher than the others. It was obvious those injuries were inflicted over a few days," said Azam, who kept notes of his medical assessment.
While the Iranian government has since admitted she was beaten, officials say she died when she fainted and hit her head. An Iranian security agent was later charged but then acquitted of killing her.
Azam listed the injuries he discovered on Kazemi:
- A broken nose.
- A large bruise on the right side of her forehead extending to the side of her head.
- A bloody lump on the back of her head.
- Evidence of internal bleeding of the brain.
- A ruptured left ear drum.
- Deep, long scratches on the back of her neck and calves.
- Evidence of broken ribs.
- Bruises on her abdomen and on her knees.
- Evidence of flogging on her back.
- Broken fingers and nails missing.
- A smashed toe.
- Bruised and swollen feet, possibly the result of a flogging.
As a male doctor, he was not allowed to examine her genitals, but a female nurse who did told him of "brutal damage."
Azam said a neurosurgeon said a brain scan showed she had a skull fracture and extensive injuries to her brain tissue.
Doctors were unable to operate because her condition was too unstable. Kazemi had a respiratory arrest the next day and later died.
Kazemi's son vows to fight for compensation
Kazemi's son Stephan Hachemi said at Thursday's news conference that he remains resolute in seeking justice.
"I could have shown emotion during his testimony today and burst into tears, but I want to remain courageous," said Hachemi, adding that he had seen the doctor five months ago in Sweden and had thanked the Canadian government for accelerating the doctor's application for asylum.
Hachemi's lawyers say they want to fight for compensation from the Iranian government and for the case to be heard by the International Criminal Court of Justice. "I have been very, very frustrated by the position and attitude of the Canadian government," said Hachemi, who is hoping publicity surrounding the doctor's testimony will move the case forward.
Hachemi's lawyers say they have sent a letter to Prime Minister Paul Martin calling for a meeting to work out what can be done now that they have medical proof of torture.
"This new evidence, while gruesome, reinforces our position," said Canada's foreign minister Pierre Pettigrew. "We will continue to put pressure on Iran to render justice." Pettigrew said he didn't think unilateral sanctions would work and said he would not recall Canada's ambassador in Iran.
Azam managed to flee his country after getting permission to seek medical help outside Iran for injuries suffered during the Iran-Iraq war. Instead, the doctor, his wife and his 12-year-old daughter fled to Sweden and applied for political asylum from there.
He and his family arrived in the country on Monday after being granted asylum by the Canadian government.
Azam brought several documents showing his credentials as a military officer and a physician, as well as papers illustrating that he worked at that hospital and was on duty the night Kazemi was brought in.