Thirteen Iranian Jews are on trial in the southern city of Shiraz on charges of spying for Israel. They are the victims of a political show trial.
The 13 are being tried in secret before a Revolutionary Court in a procedure that denies them the most elementary legal and civil rights. If convicted, they face the death penalty.
The political motives behind the trial are unmistakable. It has been mounted by Tehran's clerical reactionaries in order to whip up Islamic fanaticism and anti-Semitism. The regime of the mullahs, discredited in the eyes of broad layers of the population, apparently hopes to marshal support from the most backward and reactionary social layers.
The 13 were arrested in March of 1999, but their arrest was kept secret for three months. Jewish groups and foreign governments, including the US, kept silent on the arrests while negotiators worked to secure their release.
When all efforts to reach a compromise failed, Jewish groups went public, obliging Iranian officials to confirm the arrests and announce that the defendants were to be charged with espionage. Since then, negotiations have continued. At one point, the Israeli government asked Yassir Arafat, chairman of the Palestinian Authority, to intervene to secure their release.
No evidence has been provided to justify charges that the 13 were operating a spy network for Israel, or even to explain the circumstances leading to their arrest. The defendants are mostly in their 20s and 30s. They include a rabbi, a shopkeeper, an office worker, three Hebrew teachers, a university professor and a student—to all appearances a group that would be unlikely to have had access to classified information.
The principal evidence against the accused appears to be the fact that some of them travelled to Israel to visit relatives, and therefore have the forbidden Israeli stamp on their passports. One of the accused spent three months in Israel, where his mother lives.
While even innocuous communication with Israel in any form is illegal in Iran, it is usually tolerated. Many Jews openly admit that they have been in touch with their relatives for years via telephone, fax and email and through third countries such as Turkey.
If anything, however, this “evidence” argues against the state's allegations of espionage. What Israeli spy would make a trip to Israel, knowing for certain that by so doing he would attract the attention of the Iranian authorities?
Iranian law recognises five different degrees of espionage, which carry penalties ranging from six months imprisonment to execution. When the arrests became known last June, the country's chief judge, Muhammad Yazdi, immediately declared that the suspects would face the death penalty if found guilty. He made the announcement at Friday prayers in central Tehran and was greeted by a chorus of worshippers shouting, “The Israeli spies should be executed! Their execution is an Islamic order.”
Since then the accused have been denied access to legal counsel, and family visits have been refused. The case finally came to court in April, before being adjourned for hearings this month, after the Jewish holiday of Passover.
In the so-called Revolutionary Courts one state official serves as judge, investigator, prosecutor and jury, and even appoints the defence lawyers. No one—family members, human rights groups or the public—is allowed to witness the proceedings.
From the start of Islamic rule in 1979, the Revolutionary Courts have dealt with the most sensitive cases of national security, drug trafficking and public morals. Held behind closed doors, the Revolutionary Courts have been a crucial weapon in maintaining clerical rule, enforcing Shiite Muslim orthodoxy and intimidating the masses.
In an interview with a newspaper in September 1999, Gholamhossein Rahbarpour, president of the Teheran Revolutionary Court, said that there was sufficient and compelling evidence that the 13 Jews were guilty of the charges against them. Earlier in the same interview he had announced death sentences for four people arrested in connection with the student demonstrations in Iran last July, without identifying those sentenced to death or the details of the charges and trial proceedings against them. Amnesty International immediately published a statement expressing alarm at such a public presumption of guilt before the trial of the 13 Jews had even begun.
Ten of the defendants have been held in custody for more than a year. The court-appointed defence lawyer, Esmail Nasseri, was only shown the evidence 24 hours before the first hearing began, and was not allowed to see his clients until the hearing was under way.
After the first court hearing, Shiraz's judiciary spokesman announced that four of the thirteen defendants had confessed in court to spying. The Iranian authorities paraded the first of the defendants, Hamid Tefileen, whom they claim is the ringleader, on television in his prison clothing, confessing that he had spied for Israel.
His demeanour and language suggested a forced confession. Tefileen said he had passed classified information to Mossad, Israel's intelligence service, and received training in Israel. His confession was made without his lawyer being present and it was unclear what Tefileen was supposed to have actually done.
So far, six of the defendants have confessed and have been similarly paraded on state TV. In confessions that read like a badly written script, there are repeated references to love of the “Promised Land” of Israel. Of those who have confessed, one is a shoe salesman (Dani Tefelin) and one a store clerk (Ramin Nematizadeh). One defendant, Farzad Kashi, continued to deny the charges even after a confession was extracted from his brother.
The court-appointed defence lawyer, Nasseri, has not questioned the validity of his clients' confessions. He says the defence case is based on the fact that no classified information changed hands. “Our defence is that these suspects are not spies, but they have collaborated with a foreign power. Their sentence cannot exceed two to ten years in prison,” said Nasseri.
In recent years the Iranian courts have executed an estimated 17 Jews for espionage, including a 78-year-old man in 1994. The Jewish community in Iran, whose origins go back to the sixth century BC, is now the largest in the Moslem Middle East. It numbers 30,000, down from 85,000 in 1979 due to persecution and discrimination under the clerical regime.Western governments' muted response
The case has provoked protests from human rights groups, and United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, Nelson Mandela and a group of visiting French senators have made personal appeals. A Human Rights Watch spokesperson said, “We are concerned that these members of the Jewish minority have been singled out to make a political point. Criminal trials should not be used as a gambit in the struggle within Iran's leadership. Trials should serve justice, not politics."
But Western governments, most notably the US, have made only the most perfunctory criticisms of the trial. President Bill Clinton has expressed mild concern, along with US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who said the trial could have international repercussions. Robin Cook, Britain's foreign secretary, cancelled a visit to Iran, scheduled to begin this week, but went out of his way to emphasise that his decision was unrelated to the trial.
The response of the New York Times is of particular significance. The so-called “newspaper of record,” which is known for its close ties to the US political establishment as well as the state of Israel, has made no editorial comment on the trial since the first defendants were paraded before the international press. It has barely reported the trial in its news pages.
The silence of the New York Times on this grotesque miscarriage of justice, with its obvious anti-Semitic overtones, must be a source of bafflement to many of the newspaper's readers. However, there is a definite convergence between the Times' handling of the trial and recent overtures by Washington aimed at developing more friendly relations with Iran. The Times has for a number of years been arguing for a shift in US policy toward Iran, while insisting that Washington remain intransigent in its military and diplomatic attack on Iraq.
Both the US and Britain are anxious to open up relations with Tehran, with Albright leading US calls for a new dialogue with Teheran. The same two countries constitute the hard-line anti-Iraq faction within the United Nations Security Council. These geopolitical considerations explain, in significant measure, the virtual silence of both on the anti-Jewish show trial.
France, on the other hand, has been much more vocal in denouncing the trial. Not accidentally, France has for some time sought to cultivate more friendly relations with Iraq, and French oil companies have major investments in Iraqi petroleum.
In terms of the political situation within Iran, the trial is taking place against the backdrop of mounting repression and a power struggle between Islamic fundamentalist clerics and a more pro-Western faction, led by President Khatami.
Two months ago Khatami's supporters swept aside their more conservative opponents in the first round of parliamentary elections. Since then the clerical hard-liners have gone on the offensive, using their dominance in the courts to arrest Khatami's supporters, close 16 pro-Khatami newspapers and denounce his most ardent supporters as foreign agents out to destroy Iran's Islamic system of government. The trial of the 13 Jews is part of this offensive.
The Iranian president, notwithstanding his democratic pretensions, has said little about the persecution of the Jewish defendants. He has merely given meaningless assurances that they will receive a fair trial.