Ex-intelligence minister Ali Younessi, who was intelligence minister under Iranian reformist president Mohammad Khatami between 2000 and 2005, criticized the handling of an environmentalist’s death in prison, last Sunday, saying the public would not believe Emami was a spy unless the case was handled by a ‘competent agency’. His comment spotlighted the turf war between Iran’s multiple security agencies.
Younessi, who now serves as an advisor to President Hassan Rouhani on religious minority affairs, added, “Unfortunately the intelligence ministry has no jurisdiction over this case. 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.”
While authorities claim Emami committed suicide, his family have questioned the verdict and allege that they have been threatened by security forces.
Younessi did not name the agency running the case, and Iran has several security agencies, who often act independently of each other. Of note is that the Revolutionary Guards run a powerful intelligence service that is separate from the government’s intelligence ministry, as well.
Also pointing out 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, Younessi stated, “The prosecutor at the time insisted she was a spy.” He was referring to the notorious Tehran prosecutor Said Mortazavi, who was imprisoned last year for involvement in another custodial death during protests in 2009.
Younessi explained, “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.” He then said that Mortazavi refused to listen to their verdict, and handed the case back to the police.
According to Younessi, contrary to a statement from the reformist government at the time, which said Ms. Kazemi was violently beaten in prison, she instead died from a brain hemorrhage that was 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 hemorrhage,” he said. However, her family and their lawyer believe that she was tortured and sexually assaulted in prison.
Initially, the judiciary claimed she died of a stroke, but later admitted that she was injured in a fall.
In November 2005, intelligence agent Mohammad Reza Aghdam Ahmadi, was acquitted of her murder, and subsequent trials have failed to find anyone accountable. Additionally, Canada blocked an attempt by the family to sue the Iranian government.
The handling of the case had damaged Iran’s international reputation, Younessi said, adding, “For having reacted badly, with stubbornness, and for accusing others and politicizing the affair, the Islamic republic of Iran imposed a heavy political cost on itself.”
Canada withdrew its ambassador following Iran’s refusal to release Kazemi’s body for an independent post-mortem. This let to Canada severing diplomatic relations entirely in 2012 and soured relations with Canada for many years.