FEATURE-West watching Iran Jews trial as test
LONDON, April 12 (Reuters) - Western governments are watching the trial of 13 Iranian Jews on charges of spying for Israel as a test of Iran's opening to the West.
If the revolutionary court hands down harsh sentences on the defendants, some of whom face a maximum death penalty, it would deal a blow to Tehran's improving ties with European Union countries, and to efforts to build trust with the United States.
``This is a test case,'' said a senior European official. ``The new authorities have to learn how to handle this sort of case. It's part of growing up.''
European diplomats in Tehran have asked to attend the trial in the southern city of Shiraz but Iran has not so far agreed to admit any international observers, he said.
The campaign organisation Human Rights Watch said it had also requested observer status but had received no response from the Iranian authorities.
Western officials are aware the suspects may be pawns in a power struggle between reformist President Mohammad Khatami and Islamic hardliners who control the revolutionary justice system, but they say what matters is how Iran behaves as a state.
Israel has denied any connection with the suspects and has urged its friends in the West, and Jewish communities worldwide, to campaign for their release.
U.S., U.N., EUROPE PRESSING
U.S. President Bill Clinton has called the case an irritant. When Secretary of State Madeleine Albright announced an easing of some trade sanctions against Tehran last month, she said: ``We look to the procedures and the results of this trial as one of the barometers of U.S.-Iran relations.''
The United Nations human rights investigator for Iran, Maurice Copithorne of Canada, called last month for a fair trial and said the 10 suspects still in prison had effectively been denied access to the lawyers they wanted.
The French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin last year branded the charges ``totally fabricated'' and warned: ``It is clear...there can be no return of Iran to the international community if they are executed.''
France has Western Europe's largest Jewish community with 700,000 members.
The British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook is holding off the announcement of a planned visit to Tehran in early May for fear of being embarrassed by a harsh verdict, diplomats say.
European diplomats say their governments are under pressure from human rights organisations and local Jewish communities to lobby for the Jews' release.
``We also feel a need to show sceptics at home and in Washington that our critical engagement with Iran is delivering results,'' the senior European official said.
PRESUMPTION OF INNOCENCE
Western officials say they are working on the assumption the suspects are innocent of espionage, even if some may have had contact with relatives or religious communities in Israel.
The senior European officials said that Iranian ministers and officials had offered no evidence in talks with European interlocutors to substantiate charges that the men, who include a 16-year-old schoolboy, were spies.
Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi and other officials have sought to reassure their partners that the Jews would get a fair, public trial and that their case would be settled reasonably. However, the final decision on whether the hearings will be open lies with the judge in Shiraz.
That contrasts with shrill public statements by some of Iran's hardline religious leaders, who have proclaimed the suspects guilty without waiting for the court. Some called last year for the Jews to be executed.
A senior conservative cleric blasted the United States last week for voicing concern over the Jews' fate.
``These people are spies who have served your interests, they are Jews and are...by nature enemies of the Moslems. But you (Americans) want us to free them,'' Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, a member of the powerful Guardian Council, told a mass prayer rally in Tehran.
The crowd responded with chants of ``Death to America.''
WIDER HUMAN RIGHTS ISSUES
Jannati's insinuation that Jews are collectively suspect and hostile to Moslems underscores Western concern that the sub-text of the case may be anti-Semitism, not espionage.
Yet Iran's ancient Jewish community, which has shrunk from 80,000 before the 1979 Islamic revolution to about 30,000 today, has seemed embarrassed by the international outcry.
Some European officials admit that high-profile pressure may have been counter-productive, making it impossible for Khatami to quietly obtain the Jews' release without losing face.
Quieter diplomacy has been used to try to save the lives of members of the Baha'i faith, a breakaway sect from Islam, who do not enjoy the same constitutional protection as Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians and are treated as apostates.
But officials say foreign governments did keep quiet for weeks after the Jews were arrested early last year and only went public with protests when the case turned more sinister and talk of spying charges arose.
The senior European official said pressure had at least prompted Iran to promise the trial would be public, unlike other revolutionary court hearings, and to free three of them on bail after nearly a year in jail without trial.
``The Jews are a symbol of the wider issue of human rights in Iran, which remain a black spot despite the development of greater political democracy,'' he said.
In three years as U.N. human rights investigator, Copithorne has never been allowed to visit Iran.
His reports have highlighted the widespread use of the death penalty, along with torture, amputation, stoning and other forms of ``cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment.''
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