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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
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
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
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
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
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
Produced and Directed by
Lasso Films and TV (Netherlands)
A Hardcash Productions Film for FRONTLINE/World
and Channel 4
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