Bahai News - Iran Convicts 10 Jews of Spying for Israel; U.S.
Iran Convicts 10 Jews of Spying for Israel; U.S. Condemns
BY JOHN DANISZEWSKI
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
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
"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
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
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
"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
Nevertheless, the number of Jews in
Iran has been falling since the
revolution, and the trend accelerated last year, Jewish community
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
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
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
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
Page last updated/revised 070200
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