03/18/2014 06:19 EDT | Updated 05/18/2014 05:59 EDT

Son of slain photojournalist Zahra Kazemi presses cases against Iran

OTTAWA - The son of a Canadian photojournalist who was tortured and slain in Iran is asking the Supreme Court of Canada for permission to sue the Iranian government and those responsible for the atrocities he says his mother suffered.

Stephan Hashemi says he wants to get justice for Zahra Kazemi.

Lawyers for Hashemi as well as several human rights groups argued before the high court that under the United Nations convention on torture, Canada must ensure there is a civil remedy for victims of torture so they can be compensated.

Canada is a signatory to the convention.

Kurt Johnson, who represents Hashemi and the estate of his mother, told the seven justices that the law on state immunity denies access to justice and is therefore unconstitutional.

"It is a matter of justice," Johnson said Tuesday.

That was echoed by Francois Larocque, the lawyer for human rights organization Amnesty International, who considered the state immunity law absurd.

"It's hard to believe that in 2014 the impersonal dignity of the state is paramount to the inherent dignity of the human being," he said.

The plea to Canada's highest court is a chance "to set the record straight," he said.

Zahra Kazemi was arrested in Iran, her home country, while photographing demonstrations outside a notorious prison in Tehran in 2003. She was thrown in jail where she was tortured and raped before being killed that same year.

Hashemi had already filed an action in Quebec Superior Court in Montreal against Iran's Islamic Republic, its head of state and chief prosecutor as well as the former deputy intelligence chief of the prison where Kazemi was held.

Iran then filed a motion to dismiss the action on the basis that Canadian law on state immunity prevents a foreign country from being prosecuted on Canadian soil.

The Government of Canada intervened to defend the validity of the law before the Supreme Court. The government says that recognizing state immunity doesn't mean it approves of torture.

Government lawyer Bernard Letarte said the validity of the law is "necessary for the stability of international relations."

The Kazemi estate lost its bid in Quebec Superior Court and the province's Court of Appeal but the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. Hashemi had a favourable decision overturned by the appellate court.

Kazemi's estate is seeking damages for the pain and suffering she incurred and Hashemi is also seeking redress for his own pain.

A doctor who worked for the Iranian Defence Ministry who has since sought asylum in Canada has said he examined Kazemi after her arrest and found clear signs of torture, including broken fingers, nails torn out, a broken nose, evidence of whipping and deep laceration.