Iran Convicts 10 Jews of Spying for Israel; U.S. Condemns Trials
LOS ANGELES TIMES
CAIRO -- In a case that has put Iran's judicial system on trial and strained its relations with the West, an Iranian court Saturday found 10 Jews guilty of taking part in a spy ring for Israel and sentenced them to prison terms ranging from 4 to 13 years. Two Muslims were also convicted of abetting the group.
The long sentences meted out at the end of a closed-door trial drew howls of astonishment from relatives and immediate condemnations and protests from President Clinton, Israel, the European Union and Jewish groups around the world.
Defense lawyers and human-rights groups expressed relief, however, that none of the accused had been sentenced to death for the alleged espionage. The state intelligence service claimed it had been going on at least 15 years, mainly in the southern city of Shiraz, where the trial was held and most of the defendants lived.
Three of the 13 Jews who went on trial in April were acquitted Saturday. Two of the four Muslims accused as accessories in the case also were found not guilty.
The charges on which the 10 Jews were convicted included "cooperating with a hostile government, membership in an illegal ring and recruitment of new agents," according to their defense lawyer, Esmael Naseri.
The chief defendants, 41-year-old shoe salesman Dani Tefilin and 54-year-old university language professor Asher Zadmehr, both received 13-year sentences, according to a defense attorney. They were accused of being the chief operatives and leaders of the conspiracy allegedly run and paid for by the Israeli Mossad.
Although eight of the Jews had confessed to spying -- two on national television -- the confessions were widely discounted abroad because they were made during the more than one year that the group had been imprisoned and subjected to interrogation without access to family members or their lawyers.
Four of the remaining Jewish defendants had maintained their innocence throughout the investigation and trial. The fifth had admitted passing information to the group, but said it was not secret or harmful to the state and therefore should not be considered spying.
"All of the confessions were taken under duress," said Elahe Hicks, who observed the trial from outside the courthouse in Shiraz for the U.S.-based group Human Rights Watch.
"Throughout the hearing, the court brought no evidence," she said. "Therefore they should all be freed."
Since the arrests of the Jews first became public in early 1999, Israel has vociferously denied that any of the accused had been funneling information to its intelligence services.
Iranian law recognizes how easily confessions can be coerced and therefore requires that the state provide evidence to back up its charges even if a confession has been made. In the case of the Jewish accused, however, such corroborating evidence was never produced, according to defense lawyers.
The trial and its outcome seem likely to have long-term diplomatic repercussions for Iran, where moderate President Mohammed Khatami has been working since his election in 1997 to improve relations with its Arab neighbors and with Western Europe, while at the same time calling for a "dialogue of civilizations" with the United States.
Clinton said he was "deeply disturbed" by the verdicts. Iran "has again failed to act as a society based on the rule of law, to which the Iranian people aspire," he said.
"We have raised our concerns time and again when the Iranian government has treated intellectuals, journalists, Muslim clerics and members of the Bahai community with the same fundamental unfairness," Clinton added.
The government of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak called for Iran to be treated as a pariah until the defendants are released.
"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," Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Aviv Shiron said. "Israel will not rest until all the prisoners are released."
About 30,000 Jews live in Iran, the largest Jewish community in the Middle East outside Israel. Under an edict from the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Jews and Christians were to be treated as protected minorities and allowed to practice their religion freely. There are synagogues in most large Iranian cities, and one seat in parliament is reserved for the Jewish community.
Nevertheless, the number of Jews in Iran has been falling since the revolution, and the trend accelerated last year, Jewish community leaders acknowledged, because of apprehension stemming from the spy case.
"I clearly could see a wave of emigration coming," said Maurice Motamed, the newly elected Jewish representative to the Majlis, or parliament, after the verdicts Saturday. "I'm sorry for this, because we are a religious people who love our country and would like to live here."
In Shiraz, home to about 6,000 Jews, there had been hope since testimony ended in May that because most of the defendants had confessed and were cooperative, they would be given only mild sentences. The announcement of the prison terms came as a shock, causing family members to cry out in astonishment. One relative fainted.
Defense lawyer Naseri urged the families to try to remain calm. "None of these verdicts and sentences are final, and all can be appealed," he said.
An Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman, meanwhile, defended the conduct and outcome of the trial and accused Israel of mounting a worldwide propaganda campaign meant to tarnish Iran's image.
Hamid Reza Asefi said Israel had been "raising false claims so as to derail the legal proceedings against the spy suspects from their natural course," according to the official IRNA news agency.
Nevertheless, he said, the Iranian judiciary had "managed to deal with the case independently and based on national interests."
Hicks, of Human Rights Watch, said the case should be viewed in the context of a deteriorating human rights climate for many other groups in Iran as well. She cited the recent closure of 18 pro-reform newspapers, the arrest of activists and crusading journalists, and even the detention of lawyers involved in defending those accused of political crimes.
"The human rights situation in Iran is a hostage of the power struggle and in fact is getting worse," she said.
She acknowledged that support from the reform movement for the Jews on trial in Shiraz had been muted, however. She said that was because reformers themselves are on the defensive and are vulnerable to accusations that they are in the employ of foreign powers. Also, she said, many activists were skeptical of the West's motives for highlighting the trial of the Jews and according it more attention than is usually given to other victims of repression in the country.
Hicks said she thought it would be "counterproductive" to punish Iran for the verdicts by actions such as withdrawing diplomats.
Her visits to the Shiraz trial were the first time that a Western human rights group representative had been given access to government officials and judges in Iran, she said.
"Part of the government is really trying hard" to help the situation, she said. "And another part is trying to spoil it."
©Copyright 2000, Los Angles Times