Trial of Iranian Jews imminent?

NEW YORK, Feb. 1 (JTA) — Despite news reports that the 13 Iranian Jews accused of spying for Israel and the United States face an imminent trial, American Jewish advocates for the prisoners say it is unlikely that anything substantial will occur in the case until after Iran’s elections later this month.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean anything,” Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said of this week’s Iranian television reports.

“The families have not been notified of anything yet, and it’s unlikely that before the elections, anything of that kind of magnitude will happen in Iran.”

The 13 Jews — religious and community leaders, including one teen- ager — have been held in a jail in the southern Iranian city of Shiraz since the spring, but have not been formally charged. Both Israel and the United States have vehemently denied the accusations against them.

They face the death penalty if convicted.

Many observers believe that the arrests and accusations are part of a power struggle between conservative hard-liners and President Mohammad Khatami, who has made overtures to the West.

The Feb. 18 elections are being seen as a contest between the two forces vying for power.

Iranian officials have not detailed the evidence against the suspects, but hard-line elements of the judiciary reportedly have said documentation of the alleged crimes proves their guilt.

The case sparked an international outcry and those working on behalf of the detained have alternated between public and private diplomacy to press their cause.

In recent months, American Jewish advocates — while hoping for the prisoners’ release — have also been working to try to ensure that the prisoners receive a fair trial.

“Our preference is they should be released now,” Hoenlein said. “They’ve suffered enough no matter what they’ve done, and none are guilty of espionage.”

A trial might be better than endless delays, said Hoenlein, but “has to be public with representation and outside participation as has been promised all along.”

Samuel Kermanian, secretary-general of the Los-Angeles based Iranian American Jewish Federation, agreed, saying the trial presents an opportunity for Iran to “show to the world that it’s serious about its declarations regarding the rule of law, its civil rights, or depending on the outcome, to essentially prove they are not serious.”

He expressed concern about the judicial process, especially that the Jews be given lawyers and that the lawyers be given adequate time to review the charges and prepare a defense.

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