Bahai News - Trial of Jews: Clue to Iran's Direction?
April 26, 2000
Trial of Jews: Clue to Iran's Direction?
By NEIL MacFARQUHAR
The pending trial in Iran of 13 Jews on espionage charges is being
monitored outside the country as a gauge of the evolving balance of
power 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 of the trial
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.
The Russian foreign minister, Igor Ivanov, inquired about the trial
during a visit to Iran in November, said an official at the Iran desk at
the ministry. "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, State Department officials said the issue of the Iranian
Jews had come up in discussions with their Russian counterparts on a host
of unrelated issues, like the conflict in Kosovo.
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.
Russia has hardly been alone. The governments of Canada, Britain,
France, Holland, Germany and Japan, among others, have all said they
were disturbed by the arrests, often in the kind of terse language
that diplomats avoid. The French prime minister, Lionel Jospin, declared
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
K. Albright said in a speech in March marking the lifting of
Washington's two-decade ban on Iranian carpets and food products. The
step was taken to ease the longstanding tension between the two 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 last month, "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, among others,
expect the outcome of the trial to give some indication of whether the
hard-line elements in the government 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, the 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 country'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 United Nations human
rights investigator for Iran although he has not been allowed to enter
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 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 they exist.
Foreign governments, Jewish groups and human rights organizations have
all been pressing the government of Iran to allow their representatives
to attend the trial, to be held in the normally closed revolutionary court.
They all believe that this 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," said Mr. Copithorne.
©Copyright 2000, The New York Times
Page last updated/revised 042800
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