NEW YORK (Sep. 23)
European nations pursuing expanded relations with Iran are raising the issue of 13 Jews being held on charges of spying for Israel and the United States.
During a meeting this week with Iran’s spiritual leader, Austrian President Thomas Klestil discussed the “fears and concerns of the European Union” regarding Iran’s human rights record.
In his meeting with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Klestil spoke about the 13 Jewish detainees and four students condemned to death for their alleged role in leading the July pro-democracy demonstrations in Tehran, according to a report issued by Agence France-Presse.
Meanwhile, in New York on Tuesday, British Foreign Minister Robin Cook reportedly brought up the issue of the Jewish detainees with his Iranian counterpart, Kamal Kharazzi, during a meeting at the United Nations.
The hourlong discussion is the first time in 20 years that the United Kingdom and Iran have exchanged foreign ministerial visits. Cook is reportedly planning a trip to Iran next year and said he would bring up the issue again then.
Klestil’s visit was meant to develop bilateral relations and to give support to the liberalizing reforms of Iranian President Mohammed Khatami.
Responding to Klestil’s concerns, Khamenei reportedly said, “We are very sensitive to problems such as espionage, and we ask for nobody’s permission to punish anyone.”
The 13 Jews, the youngest of whom is 16, were arrested in March and have remained in custody in Shiraz, a city in southern Iran, while awaiting trial by a revolutionary court. Their ranks include a rabbi and several teachers.
Iran’s official news agency, IRNA, quoted Khamenei as saying, “We hate spies, whether they work for Israel or anyone else.”
“If their crime is proved by the court,” he said, “they will probably be punished.”
The news reports quote Khamenei as telling Klestil, “Zionist agents are everywhere, in Austria, too,” adding that he knew of such agents’ “subversive activities” in Austria, without giving details.
Spying for Israel or the United States is punishable by death in Iran. Iran maintains that several Muslims were involved in the espionage along with the 13 Jews.
Both Israel and the United States say the espionage charges are unfounded. Advocates for the prisoners adamantly insist they are innocent.
On Sept. 15, the European Parliament passed a resolution demanding the release of “all the prisoners, to enable them freely to prepare their defense with the lawyers of their choice.”
An amendment to the resolution says that “any dialogue between the European Union and the Islamic Republic of Iran must be dependent on respect for fundamental human rights.”
Hujat al-Aslam Hadi Marvi, Iran’s deputy judiciary chief, said in remarks published Monday that a trial is unlikely to occur soon because several people associated with the case are outside Iran.
“The 13 Iranian Jews who are under arrest are `accused’ of spying; we are not saying they `are’ spies,” Marvi was quoted as saying in the English-language magazine Iran Daily.
He said the accused would be allowed to choose their own lawyer, according to news reports. Because of the political nature of the charges, the case would be heard not by a jury, but by a judge, who would determine whether the trial would be open.
Advocates for the 13 in the United States and Iran have been working in recent weeks to arrange for legal representation.
Marvi is also reported to have said that some of the Jewish detainees had “admitted to their crimes.” These confessions, he said, make up the bulk of the evidence against them.
But last week, the head of Iran’s hard-line judiciary, Gholamhosseib Rahbarpur, said that the courts had “strong and sufficient” evidence to prove the case against the alleged spies.
Iranian-American Jewish groups welcomed Marvi’s comments as a gesture to allay European concerns that the prisoners receive a fair trial.
“But the true test for Iran is not in words but in action,” said Pooya Dayanim, a lawyer in Los Angeles who is the spokesman for the Council of Iranian American Jewish Organizations.