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 left Iran and sought 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. 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 .
Born in Shiraz, Kazemi moved to France in 1974 to study literature and cinema at the University of Paris. With her son, Stephan Hachemi, she immigrated to Quebec, Canada in 1993, where she later gained dual citizenship as an Iranian and Canadian national. She worked in Africa, Latin-America and the Caribbean and then more frequently in various Middle Eastern countries, including the Palestinian territories, Iraq and Afghanistan. She visited the latter two countries both prior and during the US occupation. Immediately prior to her travelling to Iran, Kazemi had revisited Iraq, documenting the American occupation. Recurrent themes in her work were the documentation of poverty, destitution, forced exile and oppression, but also the strength of women in these situations.
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.
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 ...
Her death also raised concerns from international human rights and free speech groups such as Reporters Without Borders, concerned over the fate of journalists in Iran. As of August 2003, ten journalists are currently in custody in Iran, and 85 newspapers have been shut down since April, 2000.
One of the two Iranian intelligence agents charged with her death was acquitted in September, 2003. The other agent, Mohammed Reza Aghdam-Ahmadi (محمدرضا اقدم احمدی), 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.
Shirin Ebadi was the main representative of Kazemi's family at the trial, and represented them at the second and third sessions of Aghdam-Ahmadi's trial, which took place on July 17 and July 18, 2004. In the court, Kazemi's mother mentioned that she wanted the real murderer to be prosecuted. She also mentioned that she saw Kazemi's body before the burial, upon which there were signs of torture.
Ebadi and the other lawyers of the family insisted in the court that they know that Kazemi was not killed by Aghdam-Ahmadi, and they need witnesses to be brought to the court in order to find the real murderer, who they guessed may be Mohammad Bakhshi, a high officer of the Evin prison. The list of witnesses they requested included Saeed Mortazavi, the general prosecutor of Tehran Mohsen Armin, reformist member of the previous parliament Hossein Ansari-Rad, Jamileh Kadivar, and Mohsen Mirdamadi, Minister of Intelligence Ali Younesi, the Vice President of Legal Affairs Mohammad Ali Abtahi, Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance Ahmad Masjedjamei, the five judges who were present during Kazemi's interrogation, a few employees of the Evin prison, the president of the Baghiyyatollah hospital, and all of the medical staff who had signed her file. Judge Farahani denied all of the requests. The lawyers also quoted the official report of death that various of parts of Kazemi's body had been damaged and her clothes were torn and bloody, which proves that she had been tortured.
On July 14, 2004, the Iranian government rejected requests for Canadian government observers to attend the trial, despite promises and assurances by the Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi and judiciary officials to the Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Bill Graham. The same day, Graham recalled the ambassador at Tehran, Philip MacKinnon. But later, MacKinnon, together with the Dutch ambassador (representing the European Union) and diplomats from the British and French embassies, were allowed to attend the July 17 trial, though not the July 18 one. The Judge Farahani was quoted on July 18 as saying that "(he) made a mistake yesterday. The bar is to show the world that Iran won't bow under pressure." Hamid Reza Assefi, the spokesman for the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said "We hadn't permitted an observer from the beginning. But you should ask the reason for the ban from the court, there may had been a shortage of seats." Assefi also said that since Iran does not recognize dual nationality and Kazemi was an Iranian citizen who entered the country under an Iranian passport, never having requested her citizenship to be removed, that the case was clearly an internal affair.
The trial sessions ended on July 18, with the lawyers of the Kazemi family insisting that the time had not been enough for proofs to be given, witnesses to be brought to court, and the murderer to be identified. They also mentioned that the court didn't pay attention to their evidence. They refused to sign the session notes. The Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister, Bill Graham, defined these events as "flagrant denial of due process".
On July 24, Judge Farahani issued his judgement, clearing Aghdam-Ahmadi of the charges. He also mentioned that since the murderer has not been found, according to the Islamic sources the blood money should be paid by the government to the family. The lawyers of Kazemi's family announced that they will definitely appeal the case, asking for a criminal court to be established to reconsider the whole case, or completing the numerous incompletenesses of the file. They also mentioned that if the family asks, they will bring the case to the international authorities, mentioning Iran's 1954 signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The end of July saw Iran's judiciary adding "accidental fall" and "hunger strike" to the list of alleged causes for Kazemi's death. They claimed that Kazemi had gone on a hunger strike voluntarily, developed low blood pressure that made her dizzy, fallen, and hit her head. Detractors point out that this story does not explain her broken bones, genital injuries or skin lacerations.