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Iranian Jews cannot choose own lawyers

NEW YORK, March 15 (JTA) — Ten of the 13 Iranian Jews facing trial on charges of spying for Israel and the United States are not being allowed to select their own lawyers, according to advocates for the accused.

Instead, the judge is insisting the prisoners take court-appointed attorneys.

The judge is claiming that the lawyers selected by the 10 prisoners do not have signed retainers indicating that the lawyers are their chosen counsel.

However, the lawyers are unable to obtain the necessary signatures from the defendants because the judge has denied them access to the prisoners.

“This is more than a Catch-22 situation. It is a violation of the most basic legal and human rights,” said Ronald Lauder, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which has been advocating on behalf of the 13 since last summer.

Three of the 13 were released on bail in February and were able to sign the documents enabling them to choose their lawyers, but the other 10 remain in jail in the southern city of Shiraz.

All could face the death penalty if convicted at next month’s trial.

Both the United States and Israel have denied the 13 spied for them.

Several weeks ago, the families were notified of the trial date and told to find attorneys.

Some did not select lawyers right away because they had been informed by government officials that they did not need them, and they feared that hiring an attorney would appear to be an admission of guilt, said Pooya Dayanim, a spokesman for the Los Angeles-based Council of Iranian American Organizations.

In addition, Dayanim said, few Iranian lawyers were willing to take the case because most Iranians believe the defendants are guilty.

Advocates for the 13, who have been hoping the defendants would receive a fair trial open to foreign observers and the media, consider the judge’s latest move an ominous development.

“We are dismayed not only by this cynical maneuver, but what it bodes for the trial,” Lauder said.

Many believe the arrest of the 13 is part of a larger struggle between reformers and hard-liners in the Iranian government.

Although reformist forces won an overwhelming victory in Iran’s Feb. 18 parliamentary elections, hard-liners still control the judiciary.

Even before learning of the judge’s decision regarding the retainers, American advocates for the 13 were urging President Clinton not to lift an embargo on Iranian pistachios and carpets, a move he is expected to announce this week as a way of expressing support for the Iranian reformers.

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) spoke on the House floor Tuesday against lifting the embargo until the 13 are released, and he is mobilizing colleagues on this issue.

Clinton’s expected announcement drew fire from the Council of Iranian American Organizations.

“The Clinton administration decision is a slap across the face of the Iranian-American Jewish community,” Dayanim said. “It was only last Saturday that the Iranian-American Jewish community in a private event raised over $150,000 for the Democratic National Committee in an event which was attended by the president himself.”

In a related development, a group of European rabbis urged their countries’ governments to pressure Iran to free the 13.

“We are urging European governments to take a strong stand,” British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said Wednesday at the end of a three-day conference held in the Slovak capital of Bratislava.

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