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Ten Iranian Jews Convicted of Spying for Israel, Three Acquitted

SHIRAZ, Iran Ten Iranian Jews were convicted Saturday of spying for Israel and sentenced to prison terms of four to 13 years, while three others were acquitted, the leading defense lawyer said.

Israel, which denied the accused were its agents, protested the verdicts and sentences, as did Jewish groups in the United States.

Relatives of the accused who arrived at the courthouse in Shiraz on foot because of the Jewish Sabbath howled in anguish. One family member fainted.

In Washington, President Clinton said he was deeply concerned by the convictions and noted that the United States Human Rights Commission has denounced the judicial process by which the 13 Iranian Jews were tried as "seriously flawed."

"We have raised our concerns time and again, when the Iranian government has treated intellectuals, journalists, Muslim clerics and members of the Baha'i community with the same fundamental unfairness," Clinton said. "We are deeply disappointed that the Iranian government has again failed to act as a society based on the rule of law, to which the Iranian people aspire."

Dani Tefilin, a shoe salesman, and Asher Zadmehr, a university language professor, received the 13-year sentences, said defense lawyer Esmail Naseri. Ramin Nematizadeh, a shoe clerk, received the shortest jail term, Naseri said.

Of the seven others, civil servant Nasser Levihaim was sentenced to 11 years; store clerk Ramin Farzam 10; shopkeeper Javid Bent-Yacoub nine; shopkeeper Farhad Seleh eight; religion teacher Shahrokh Paknahad eight; religion teacher Farzad Kashi eight; and Faramarz Kashi five.

Three others Tefilin's brother Omid, Navid Balazadeh and Nejatollah Brukhimnejad were acquitted, Naseri said. The three have been out on bail since February.

"None of these verdicts and sentences are final and all can be appealed," Naseri said. "We are relieved that there were no death sentences. ... I urge family members of the defendants to remain calm."

Hossein Ali Amiri, the judiciary chief of Fars province, where the trial was held under an international spotlight since April, said earlier that the sentences included fines and lashings. Naseri made no mention of these punishments.

Amiri said two Muslim suspects also were acquitted, and another two Muslims received sentences similar to those given the Jews. Little information has been released about the Muslims involved.

The charges on which the defendants were convicted included "cooperating with a hostile government, membership in an illegal (spy) ring and recruitment of new agents," Naseri said.

Tefilin was the first of the defendants arrested more than a year ago and was the first of two Jews involved in the case to be shown on national television confessing to spying for Israel. Zadmehr also confessed, though not on television.

In all, eight defendants confessed and pleaded guilty, four pleaded innocent and one acknowledged passing information but maintained his action did not constitute espionage.

Most of the accused were from Shiraz, 550 miles south of Tehran. As word spread of the verdicts and sentences, relatives waiting outside the courthouse let out cries of despair.

The case has cast a pall over Iran's Jewish community and drawn concerned attention from the United States, Israel and elsewhere. Critics have questioned whether the accused could be fairly tried in a process in which there was no jury, the judge also acted as prosecutor and observers were banned.

Israel said all the defendants are innocent and asked the international community to press for their release.

"Iran cannot be accepted as a member of the international community as long as Jewish prisoners are rotting away in prison when they have done no wrong," Foreign Ministry spokesman Aviv Shiron said Saturday.

Questions about fairness had increased when state television broadcast confessions from two of the defendants. Defense lawyers said they were not given a chance to consult with their clients before the confessions, which came after months in jail.

"Clearly the result comes as little surprise in a show trial of this kind. Sadly, guilty verdicts were expected," said David A. Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, reached at his home in New York early Saturday.

"It's a tragedy for the 10 and our hearts go out to them and their families, even as our resolve to rescue them remains undiminished."

Anticipating prison terms for the defendants, Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, said Friday that Iranian President Mohammad Khatami would face protests on foreign trips as a result.

Phil Baum, executive director of the American Jewish Congress, said from his New York home that sentences might have included death had people around the world not spoken out against the trial.

"Thank God at least no one had to pay with his life because of the political prejudices of the Iranian government," Baum said. Still, "the moderation of the Khatami government is not reflected in these trials. This is a matter of great distress."

In 1997, two Jews were hanged at Tehran's Evin prison on similar spying charges. Iranian officials had differed on whether the death penalty could be applied if any of the 13 in the current case were convicted.

Iran's Jewish community, although it has dwindled over the decades, remains the Middle East's largest outside Israel. Iranian Jews are generally allowed to practice their religion freely, but like all Iranians they are forbidden any contact with Israel.


©Copyright 2000, Washington Post

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