Frontline World

IRAN - Forbidden Iran, January 2004

Related Features THE STORY
Synopsis of "Forbidden Iran"

A Brief History

Undercover With the Underground

Nobel Prize Winner

Government, People, the Press

Human Rights, Blogs, Nuclear Threats




"Forbidden Iran" is a Hardcash Productions film for FRONTLINE/World and Channel 4

The Story
Reporter, Student protest, Women about to be hung

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In July 2003, Canadian journalist Zahra Kazemi was tortured and murdered by Iranian security agents after she attempted to report on the growing opposition movement in Iran. FRONTLINE/World correspondent Jane Kokan risks her personal safety to follow in Kazemi's footsteps, traveling undercover to Iran to investigate the clerical regime's latest crackdown on students, journalists and dissidents. "I want to find out what happened to [Kazemi]," says Kokan, "and the story she died trying to tell."

Iran is a theocratic republic ruled by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and a council of mullahs, who control the prisons, courts and security forces. Students and dissidents pushing for change want the mullahs out of power and replaced with a more democratic government. But the Islamic regime has come down hard on political opponents, deploying security forces and packs of Bassijis, Islamic vigilantes, against dissidents. Ten Iranian journalists are currently jailed for writing critically about the regime, and foreign journalists are seriously restricted in Iran.

Kokan's journey starts in London, where she meets members of the Iranian diaspora. They share with her their personal stories, as well as amateur videos and other evidence they've smuggled out of Iran documenting attacks against students and dissidents.

At a peaceful demonstration at the Iranian Embassy in London, Kokan meets a young leader of the Independent Student Movement, Iman Samizadez. "I'm looking for [a] free Iran, without religion," Samizadez tells Kokan. "People, they can have religion as a private thing. But in a political way, we are looking for a free country."

In London, Kokan uncovers photographs documenting the bloody aftermath of a raid on a student dormitory in Tehran in the summer of 2003. The raid was carried out by vigilantes armed with machetes, metal pipes, chains and butcher knives.

Kokan also learns that some 4,000 Iranian student activists were arrested after protests in Tehran and other cities in June 2003 and at least 500 remain in prison for their democratic beliefs. Amir Fakhravar, a student movement leader and hero, is among the men and women Kokan will attempt to make contact with while in Iran. Punished for writing a book promoting democracy and free speech, Fakhravar is serving an eight-year prison sentence at Qasr Prison in Tehran. In a video recorded before he went to prison last year, Fakhravar prepares his mother for his execution, which he believes is imminent. "I don't [want] you to have that sad face. I want [you] at that moment they're hanging me, to stand proudly and say, 'I'm proud of my son,'" he says. In prison, Fakhravar has suffered regular beatings and torture.

Iran's aging mullahs have reason to be concerned about the young pro-democracy movement: 70 percent of Iranians are under age 30 and many have access to Western ideas and culture via the Internet and satellite television.

After months of negotiating access, Kokan is finally able to enter Iran in September 2003. Pretending to be an archaeologist, she crosses the Turkish border with a group touring the country's ancient ruins. Once inside, Kokan is assigned an official minder and her hotel room and phone are monitored. She must be extremely careful as she tries to make contact with Iran's underground student movement. She slips out at night to communicate by email, using a secret code she's developed to communicate with colleagues and sources. But she is careful to return by curfew or risk the hotel receptionist's reporting her to the police.

One night, Kokan shakes her minder to meet a friend of imprisoned student leader Fakhravar. Kokan pledges to protect the friend's identity, and he describes the ever-present security forces in Iran and the impact of a police state on daily life. "Our dream country is one where human rights are respected," he tells Kokan, "where people aren't sent to prison and tortured for their ideas, for their writing, for their work. That's our dream country."

Dodging her minders again, Kokan finds and films the anonymous site in Shiraz where journalist Zahra Kazemi's body is buried.

After two weeks, Kokan's tour group finally arrives in Tehran. Here in the capital city, Kokan encounters the tightest security yet, but she still manages to sneak away from the tour to meet a young activist who has been arrested four times and a political dissident, active since the 1970s, who has been supporting the student movement. To make a political statement, both men insist on showing their faces on camera, despite the risk of serious reprisal. The student activist tells Kokan that his movement wants support from the West, but does not want a U.S. military invasion like the one in Iraq.

The dissident, whom Kokan calls Arzhang, proves to be her most important contact in Iran. Arzhang gains access to a telephone line inside one of Iran's toughest prisons and sets up a telephone interview for Kokan with Fakhravar. The student leader tells Kokan of personally witnessing the murders of 19 student activists. But before he can answer whether he fears his own death in prison, the telephone is disconnected.

In the outskirts of Tehran, Kokan further interviews Arzhang, who shares information about Canadian journalist Zahra Kazemi's last days. "She fought [the interrogators] back, she criticized them, she shouted," Arzhang says. "They cannot endure critics and she fought them back strongly."

As the final days of the group tour approach, Kokan must prepare for her departure, destroying all notes and other evidence of her unofficial business in Iran. Students smuggle her interview tapes over the mountains into Turkey, where she will pick them up later.

After her safe return, Kokan travels to Amsterdam to interview a former Iranian intelligence officer, Hamid Zakeri, who defected more than a year ago. Zakeri, who once worked for the Ayatollah Khamenei, now claims to be under the protection of the FBI and European security agencies. Zakeri tells Kokan that according to his intelligence sources, a security agent named Jafar Nemati was responsible for the beatings of Kazemi. After she was beaten unconscious, Nemati's boss, Saeed Mortesavi, a top judge in the mullahs' justice ministry, ordered Kazemi to be transferred into the custody of the intelligence ministry. Kokan learns that the details Zakeri provided were later confirmed in an investigation by the Iranian parliament.

In Iran, Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi tells FRONTLINE/World that she is determined to pursue an investigation of Zahra Kazemi's death. After months of reporting, Kokan makes a last trip to Montreal, Canada, where Zahra Kazemi's son, Stefan, lives. Stefan is still struggling with the Iranian government for the return of his mother's body, which will provide indisputable evidence of her brutal death.

"The guilty is not one man," Stefan says. "Responsible is the Iranian government, responsible is Khamenei. My mother's dead, but there [are] journalists, other people that get such treatment. I don't want the death of my mother to be in vain."

Reported and Filmed by
Jane Kokan

Additional Camera
Mohammed Moujahir

Produced and Directed by
Carla Garapedian

Camilla Tress

Associate Producer
Alison Aylen

Behzad Yaghmaian

Additional Footage
Lasso Films and TV (Netherlands)

Michael Ormiston

Executive Producer
David Henshaw

A Hardcash Productions Film for FRONTLINE/World and Channel 4

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