Published Friday, April 28, 2000
Iran's trial of 13 Jews may be barometer of government
The pending espionage trial in Iran of 13 Jews is being monitored outside the country as a gauge of the evolving power balance between the forces of tolerance and the Islamic revolution's more zealous adherents.
Since the charges were brought in March 1999 against the Jewish men, as well as eight unidentified Muslims, the case has generated questions from a broad range of governments and organizations. Top officials in Western Europe, Japan, the United Nations, the Arab world and particularly Russia have openly expressed qualms about what the outcome might be.
The extensive lobbying by Russia was especially curious, because Jews suffered discrimination in the Soviet era, with those applying to emigrate usually denied permission and often losing their jobs.
Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov inquired about the trial during a visit to Iran in November, a ministry official said. "He talked to the leaders of the Iranian government." the official said, "and told them that although we recognize that this is their internal affair, we hoped that this trial would be conducted in a fair and transparent manner."
Artur Chilingarov, a deputy speaker of the Russian parliament, made a similar appeal last year during a meeting with the Iranian ambassador to Moscow, as did Vladimir Gusinsky, an influential Russian tycoon who is also president of the Russian Jewish Congress.
Other government officials also made inquiries with Russian officials, saying they had been asked to intervene by the United States and Israel.
In Washington, D.C., State Department officials said the issue of the Iranian Jews had come up in discussions with their Russian counterparts.
One senior State Department official said Russian participation on this case could be traced to a number of factors. Russia has long sought a larger role in Middle East peace talks, and Russian Jewish groups are becoming more vocal.
The governments of Canada, Britain, France, Holland, Germany and Japan, among others, have said they were disturbed by the arrests, often in the kind of terse language that diplomats avoid. French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin called the charges "totally fabricated," while Canada has emphasized that maintaining good relations depends on a fair resolution of the case.
Although the United States has no diplomatic relations with Iran, the Clinton administration has made its thoughts known.
"We look to the procedures and the results of this trial as one of the barometers of U.S.-Iran relations," Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said in a speech in March marking the lifting of Washington's 20-year ban on Iranian carpets and food products. The step was taken to ease the longstanding tension between the nations.
A stream of contradictory statements about the defendants from various branches of the Iranian government has heightened interest in the case as a means of assessing what is going on inside the country.
In the last year, hard-line Shiite Muslim clerics have echoed the statement of Ayatollah Muhammad Yazdi, who said the detainees should be "sentenced to death -- not once but several times."
On the other hand, Hossein Sadeqi, the new spokesman for Iran's judiciary, said in March that "We hope and desire that none of them is convicted and hope that they are all innocent and will be acquitted."
Foreign governments and human rights organizations expect the outcome of the trial to show whether government hard-liners can still thwart attempts by moderate elements to develop more neighborly international ties.
The question of which side can exert more influence was sharpened by the results of parliamentary elections in February, when moderates trounced the hard-liners.
"There is a fear that the internal struggles within Iran are being played out in this case," said Hanny Megally, executive director of Human Rights Watch for the Middle East and North Africa. "If there is going to be a trial, how that process goes -- whether it is fair and open and public -- will be a strong indication of how far Iran has come."
The question remains what effect, if any, the international outcry has had on the trial. Some officials say they believe that the questions from foreign governments have served to mitigate the charges against the Jews, making it unlikely that they will face capital punishment.
Others say too much attention has been focused on the case, potentially contributing to Iranian suspicions that some among the nation's 35,000 Jews have ties to outside powers.
Diplomats and human-rights officials noted that other protests against religious prosecution in Iran, notably against the Bahai minority, had been carried out much more quietly.
"It is extremely hard to measure what impact foreign comments on something like this trial have actually had in practice," said Maurice Copithorne, a Canadian jurist who serves as the U.N. human-rights investigator for Iran, even though he has not been allowed to enter the country.
On April 13, an Iranian judge in the city of Shiraz postponed the trial of the 13 until May 1 to give defense attorneys more time to prepare and out of deference to the Passover holiday, said Hossein Ali Amiri, the chief of the judiciary in Fars Province.
Three of the defendants were released on bail in February. The rest remain in prison. The accused Jews -- most of whom are merchants or schoolteachers, with the youngest of them a 17-year-old student -- are charged with spying for Israel, but no evidence against them has been made public. Some may have had contact with relatives or the exile community there, but Israel has denied any connection with the men.
Iran has said religion has no bearing on the case, noting that some Muslims were arrested at the same time as the Jews more than a year ago. But the Muslims have never been identified, with diplomats and human-rights officials expressing doubt that they exist.
Foreign governments, Jewish groups and rights organizations have been pressing Iran to allow their representatives to attend the trial. They all say that that is the only way any evidence will be known. So far there has been little indication that this will be allowed.
"There is a widespread perception that these are unlikely spies to begin with, so the basis of the allegations is considered suspect by many observers," Copithorne said.
©Copyright 2000, New York Times