By MICHAEL DEN TANDT
Ottawa Stung by opposition charges that it has been too soft on Iran, the Martin government launched an aggressive diplomatic push yesterday for a new investigation into the torture, rape and murder of Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi by Iranian security forces in 2003.
"This is something on which we will not give up," Foreign Affairs Minister Pierre Pettigrew told the House of Commons, adding that he had telephoned Iran's Minister of Foreign Affairs yesterday morning to demand a forensic examination of Ms. Kazemi's remains.
"We know that in Iran it is lies, it is cover-ups that have been presented to us, and this is totally unacceptable."
Mr. Pettigrew also said the government will seek international support to increase diplomatic pressure on Iran to accede to its demands.
"We have many countries onside," he said. ". . .We have our allies who are well aware of our concerns with the situation in Iran and they've been supporting us at the United Nations, and we will continue to work on that front."
Mr. Pettigrew's remarks, both in the Commons and in interviews afterward, were markedly tougher in tone than last week, during the government's first response to revelations that Ms. Kazemi was brutally tortured and raped.
The revelations, from former Tehran emergency-room doctor Shahram Azam, were gruesomely detailed. However, the government continued to resist calls to withdraw its ambassador to Tehran, a position that drew fire from the opposition yesterday.
The change in the government's emphasis and tone were not lost on lawyers for Stephan Hachemi, Ms. Kazemi's son. Mr. Hachemi has campaigned for two years without Canadian government assistance to seek justice for his mother.
"The emotional tone has clearly changed," said Hachemi lawyer John Terry. "Dr. Azam's evidence has gotten the government's attention."
However, Mr. Terry was cool to the new initiative, saying Mr. Pettigrew's requests are very similar to those he's made of Iran's government all along, without success.
"If there's anything we've learned in the last two years, it's that the Iranian government does not respond simply to strong words and criticism."
He added: "You need to have a broader strategy and set of initiatives if you're going to get the Iranian government's attention."
The Kazemi family intends to push for specific new initiatives, including legislative changes to make it easier to sue the Iranian government, at a meeting today with PMO officials, he added.
Although Prime Minister Paul Martin was immediately receptive to Mr. Hachemi's calls for a new approach to the two-year-old case, Mr. Pettigrew was initially reluctant.
He insisted last week that Ottawa was doing all it could, and that tougher diplomatic measures such as withdrawing the ambassador or imposing economic sanctions would be counterproductive or ineffective.
But yesterday, both Mr. Pettigrew and Mr. Martin went into much greater detail than they have in recent months about the Kazemi case, and about Dr. Azam's secret flight from Iran last November.
In response to opposition criticism of the government's decision to send an ambassador back to Iran last year when it already knew of Ms. Kazemi's torture and rape, Mr. Martin said the government was protecting Dr. Azam.
"The possibility of the doctor's life being in danger was uppermost in the government's mind," he said. "We wanted to make sure that we could get him here to a safe haven."
Stockwell Day, the Conservative foreign affairs critic, accused the Liberals of playing "catch-up" on the Kazemi case, and argued the new diplomatic initiative is a smokescreen to cover past bungling. "It's really a non-announcement," he said. "It's a matter of empty words and waving paper around."
He reiterated opposition demands for a muscular response to Dr. Azam's account, including the immediate recall of Canada's ambassador to Iran, unless basic demands the return of Ms. Kazemi's remains to her son and the launching of a proper criminal investigation with international observers are met at once.