Amnesty International was represented in this case by François Larocque and Alyssa Tomkins.
WHAT IS THIS CASE ABOUT?
Zahra Kazemi was a photojournalist with dual Canadian-Iranian nationality. She was held in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison and died in 2003 from beatings sustained after her arrest. No Iranian official involved in her torture, rape, and murder was held accountable in Iran. In an effort to obtain redress for Ms. Kazemi’s death, her son, Stephan Hasemi, filed a civil action against the government of Iran in Canadian courts on his own behalf and on behalf of the Estate of Zahra Kazemi.
In this case, the Supreme Court of Canada had to consider whether Canada’s State Immunity Act permits victims of torture and their families to sue States and government officials who torture.
AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL’S INTERVENTION
The State Immunity Act provides immunities to foreign states and their officials in their sovereign acts, or, in other words, acting on behalf of their government. Amnesty International intervened in this case to argue that under international law, especially the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, torture and rape can never be considered a sovereign act immunized by the State Immunity Act. Consequently, victims of these acts and their families should be able to seek redress against foreign officials who perpetrate these acts in Canadian courts.
STATUS OF THE CASE
In a disappointing 6-1 judgment, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that “the peremptory norm prohibiting torture has not yet created an exception to state immunity from civil liabilities in cases of torture committed abroad.” In other words, the Court held that the State Immunity Act provides an absolute bar to civil claims against foreign states and their officials with respect to torture. The majority judgement highlighted that it is for Parliament to create such an exception. Justice Abella, the sole dissenting judge, found that “equivocal customary law should not be interpreted as as to block access to a civil remedy for what is unequivocally prohibited.”
Amnesty International continues its call on the Canadian government to amend the State Immunity Act so that victims of torture can turn to Canadian courts for redress. We also continue to advocate for this amendment to the State Immunity Act in the international sphere before UN Committees and other international bodies responsible for reviewing Canada’s compliance with its international human rights obligations. The UN Committee against Torture has called on Canada to amend the State Immunity Act. As Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada’s English Branch put it, the Canadian law must be amended “to ensure that when it comes to torture, genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and other crimes under international law, immunity does not stand in the way of justice.”
Amnesty International’s Application for Leave to Intervene before the Supreme Court of Canada in the Kazemi case
Amnesty International’s Submissions to the Supreme Court of Canada in the Kazemi case
The Supreme Court of Canada’s Judgment in the Kazemi case