Israelis, American Jews and others from all walks of life angrily condemned the maximum sentence imposed on Soviet Jewish activist losif Begun by a court in Vladimir last Friday after a three-day trial.
Begun, a 51-year-old engineer and unofficial teacher of Hebrew in Moscow — where such activity is banned — was sentenced to seven years imprisonment to be followed by five years of internal exile. He had been charged with “anti-Soviet” activities.
The U.S. State Department expressed the official American protest in a statement that referred to Begun’s trial as the cutting edge of a “new wave of repression” in the USSR and an “increase in officially sanctioned anti-Semitism.”
ACTIONS IN ISRAEL
The Israeli government issued an official statement after today’s Cabinet meeting denouncing the Soviet policy of discrimination against Jews.
It appealed to all nations of the world and lovers of freedom to appeal to the Soviet government to overturn the sentence and to allow Begun and other Jews to leave the Soviet Union for Israel. The Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem instructed Israeli embassies abroad to urge their host governments to bring pressure to bear on Moscow for Begun’s release.
Education Minister Zevulun Hammer issued a spearate appeal to his counterparts in other countries and to teachers and academicians everywhere to protest the sentence. He also instructed teachers in Israel to talk to their pupils about Begun and his struggle to emigrate to Israel and his efforts to teach Hebrew in the Soviet Union.
Fourteen former Prisoners of Conscience who had been jailed in the USSR and now reside in Israel staged a protest outside the Russian Church in Jerusalem today. A major protest demonstration has been scheduled for Tuesday outside the Knesset building. Legal circles in Israel and the Bar Association called on lawyers abroad to protest “this travesty of justice.”
BEGUN WAS A SPECIAL TARGET
Begun, who had long sought in vain for permission to emigrate, has been a special target of the Soviet authorities and KGB harassment. He was first arrested on March 3, 1977, charged with “parasitism,” having lost his job at the Moscow Central Research Institute years before when he first applied for an exit visa.
He was tried in June, 1977 and sentenced to two years of internal exile which he spent in the remote city of Magadan. He completed his sentence in February, 1978 but was arrested in June and sentenced to three more years in Magadan. He returned in August 1980.
On November 6, 1982, he was arrested a third time and charged with “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda.” He was reportedly held in solitary confinement for most of the time until his trial opened last Wednesday.
The possible sentences were 2-3 years’ internal exile or seven years in prison plus five years’ internal exile. He drew the maximum.
SAYS USSR IS ‘MAKING A GRAVE MISTAKE’
Avraham Harman, chairman of the Israel Public Committee for Soviet Jewry, said today, “The Soviet Union is making a grave mistake if it thinks that by this verdict losif Begun will be forgotten. We vow that we will protest on his behalf every single day” against this “malicious and evil” sentence.
Histadrut Secretary General Yeruham Meshel asked the International Federation of Free Trade Unions to intervene on Begun’s behalf. Leon Dulzin, chairman of the Jewish Agency and World Zionist Organization Executives, called the sentence “vile.”
Begun was guilty only of teaching Hebrew and seeking to return to his ancestral homeland, Dulzin said. Science Minister Yuval Neeman appealed to Amnesty International, the organization that seeks to help political prisoners everywhere, to help seek Begun’s release.
In New York, Morris Abram, chairman of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry (NCSJ), noted that this was the third trial of Begun. “The real offense which Begun committed is the attempt to teach and foster a 5,000 year-old language and literature of which has furnished the world with moral insight and great beauty — Hebrew. His treatment is another horrible example of Soviet inhumanity to man and disrespect for the decent opinion of mankind,” Abram said.
CALLS FOR ENDING TRADE WITH THE USSR
Avigdor Eskin, a former unofficial teacher of Hebrew in Moscow, who is now in Israel, spoke of Begun at a rally at the Western Wall in Jerusalem organized by the Israel branch of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry (SSSJ). Eskin, a close friend of Begun, recalling the silence during the Holocaust, urged the free world to cease trade with the Soviet Union.
At the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, professors and researchers in Russian culture and language, called on “our colleagues around the world to join” their call to release Begun with permission to emigrate to Israel and to make possible free Jewish culture in the USSR.
The State Department noted in its statement that Begun’s trial began on the heels of the Madrid conference on compliance with the human rights clauses of the Helsinki accords, of which the Soviet Union is a signatory. The Department called on the Soviet authorities to acknowledge the “legitimate, widespread concern” for Begun and “grant him the permission to emigrate he has so long sought.”