Bahai News - Iran's trial of 13 Jews may be barometer of
Published Friday, April 28, 2000
Iran's trial of 13 Jews may be barometer of government
Neil MacFarquhar / New York Times
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Page last updated/revised 042800
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