OTTAWA – Prime Minister Stephen Harper criticized Iran and his foreign affairs minister summoned that country’s top diplomat as the outcry mounted for the release of an Iranian-Canadian journalist detained by Iranian security forces.
“The reaction of the Iranian authorities to the demonstrations in Iran is wholly unacceptable,” Harper said in a bluntly worded statement in Ottawa on Monday.
“The regime has chosen to use brute force and intimidation in responding to peaceful opposition regarding legitimate and serious allegations of electoral fraud.”
Harper called on Iran to release political prisoners and journalists who have been unjustly detained and allow free reporting on events there.
Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon called in the Iranian charge d’affaires to meet with Canadian officials “to express our grave concern about the arrest of a Canadian journalist and about the general situation,” said Foreign Affairs spokesman Andre Lemay.
Lemay said the meeting was held Monday afternoon, and the department expressed its dismay at developments.
Lemay said Canadian consular officials in Tehran are sending a diplomatic note to Iranian authorities to demand immediate access to Bahari, an Iranian-Canadian who was working for Newsweek magazine when detained Sunday.
The charge is the highest-ranking Iranian diplomat in Ottawa. Neither country has had an ambassador in the other’s capital for a about a year in a diplomatic skirmish over acceptable candidates. The charge runs the embassy in the absence of an ambassador.
The news of the government reaction is heartening to friends of Bahari and they want the pressure intensified.
Facebook and Twitter support groups urged people to lobby their MPs to pressure the Iranian government.
Public pressure is needed right now to keep Bahari’s case in the spotlight, said Peter Svatek, a Montreal filmmaker who worked with Bahari on a 2005 documentary on the dangers faced by journalists in Iraq.
“I’m glad the Canadian government is doing something,” Svatek said in a telephone interview. “I think the Canadian government needs to be even more vocal and stronger in demanding Maziar’s release.”
Svatek described Bahari as someone who takes precautions and is a serious, professional journalist.
“I’m sure that he did absolutely nothing wrong, that his arrest is purely political,” he said.
“Now is the time for everyone, everywhere to speak up loudly against his arrest and for his immediate release.”
Support for Bahari came from Canadians, Americans and as far away as the Netherlands on Facebook.
An administrator for the Facebook group, who requested anonymity, said the group “just wants to help” Bahari.
“I think he’s got a lot of courage to do what he’s done and what he’s doing now,” said the administrator, who knew Bahari when he was a mature student at Montreal’s Concordia University.
Bahari was born in Iran in 1967 and studied in Montreal, where he graduated with a degree in communications from Concordia in 1993.
Newsweek says he is a Canadian citizen who has been living in and covering Iran for the last decade. Svatek said he has spent most of his time in Iran and Europe.
The magazine has called for his immediate release and is asking western governments to use their influence on his behalf.
Bahari is one of at least two dozen journalists and bloggers arrested in Iran since protests began there a week ago over the recent presidential election.
In July 2003, an Iranian-Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi was arrested while taking photographs outside a Tehran prison during protests. Kazemi died a few days later of a fractured skull and brain hemorrhage while in the custody of Iranian secret police.
Her son said she was tortured and raped before being killed. Canada placed tougher restrictions on relations with Iran after the trial of an intelligence official charged with Kazemi’s death fell apart in 2005.
-From Nelson Wyatt in Montreal and John Ward in Ottawa