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article imageIran's ex-intelligence minister slams handling of prison death

By Eric Randolph (AFP)     Feb 25, 2018 in Politics

An ex-intelligence minister in Iran on Sunday criticised the handling of an environmentalist's death in prison, saying the public would not believe he was a spy unless the case was handled by a "competent agency".

Ali Younessi, who was intelligence minister under reformist president Mohammad Khatami between 2000 and 2005, shone a rare light on the turf war between Iran's multiple security agencies in his interview with the daily Iran newspaper.

He referred to the case of Kavous Seyed Emami, 63, the Iranian-Canadian citizen who founded the Persian Heritage Wildlife Foundation. He died in prison this month after being arrested along with seven members of his NGO on espionage charges.

"Unfortunately the intelligence ministry has no jurisdiction over this case," said Younessi, who now serves as an advisor to President Hassan Rouhani on religious minority affairs.

"I believe the case should be given to the intelligence ministry... Given the events that have occurred, if a competent and legal agency does not intervene and doesn't give its opinion on the dead individual or those under arrest, public opinion will not believe they are spies even if they are convicted."

The authorities say Emami committed suicide, but the family have questioned the verdict and say they were threatened by security forces.

Iran has a wide array of security agencies, which often act independently of each other and are responsible to competing centres of power.

Younessi did not name the agency running the case, but the Revolutionary Guards run a powerful intelligence service that is separate from the government's intelligence ministry.

- Photographer murder case -

Younessi also gave details of the infamous case of Zahra Kazemi, an Iranian-Canadian photographer who died from head injuries after being arrested for taking photos outside Evin prison in 2003.

"The prosecutor at the time insisted she was a spy," he said, referring to the notorious Tehran prosecutor Said Mortazavi, who was last year jailed for his part in another custodial death during protests in 2009.

"We sent two counter-espionage experts from the ministry to investigate this woman in a hotel. After the interview, the two experts concluded that from a technical and scientific standpoint, Zahra Kazemi was not a spy," said Younessi.

But Mortazavi refused to listen to their verdict, he said, and handed the case back to the police.

In Younessi's version of events, Kazemi, who was 54, died from a brain haemorrhage caused at the moment of her arrest.

She "was beaten because she refused to hand over her items and her head hit a concrete road divider, which caused a haemorrhage", he said.

That goes against a statement from the reformist government at the time, which said Kazemi was violently beaten in prison -- a view supported by her family and their lawyer who say she was tortured and sexually assaulted.

The judiciary initially claimed she died of a stroke and only later that she was injured in a fall.

An intelligence agent, Mohammad Reza Aghdam Ahmadi, was acquitted of her murder in November 2005 and subsequent trials failed to find anyone accountable, while Canada blocked an attempt by the family to sue the Iranian government.

Younessi said the handling of the case had damaged Iran's international reputation.

"For having reacted badly, with stubbornness, and for accusing others and politicising the affair, the Islamic republic of Iran imposed a heavy political cost on itself," he said.

The case soured relations with Canada for years.

Canada withdrew its ambassador after Iran refused to hand over Kazemi's body for an independent post-mortem, and eventually severed diplomatic relations entirely in 2012 over a range of differences.

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