NEW YORK, May 3 (JTA) — While the events unfolding 8,000 miles away in the espionage trial of 13 Iranian Jews have shocked many American Jews, the trial is following a script prepared earlier this year, said a Jewish leader monitoring the events.
On Wednesday, a second and third prisoner “confessed” to spying for Israel and its foreign intelligence agency, Mossad, “out of love” for the Jewish state. Western observers, however, charge that the confessions were either extracted under duress, with promises of leniency — or both.
“We were told this would happen several months ago — they would not have their own lawyers, the trial would be behind closed doors with no foreign observers let in and there would be confessions,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
“We are expecting a fourth confession, and perhaps statements from other defendants.”
Hoenlein, who has spearheaded efforts to secure the release of the “Iran 13,” said he receives his intelligence from Iranian sources close to the hard-line authorities who control the court system.
Following Wednesday’s proceedings, one of those who “confessed,” part-time Hebrew teacher Shahrokh Paknahad, told reporters waiting outside: “We were told by Israeli intelligence that if any of us under any circumstances were arrested, we must deny everything and they would help to get us out by bringing to bear international pressure. But that was just lies.”
Paknahad, 23, described by one judiciary official as one of the alleged spy ring’s “ideologues,” added, “What I can say on behalf of myself and the others is that we are unhappy and sad and repentant.”
The third man to “confess” was Ramin Nemati, 23.
Their statements came after the purported confession Monday of the alleged leader, Hamid “Dani” Tefileen. A devoutly religious man from the southern city of Shiraz, Tefileen admitted to visiting Israel in 1994.
Interviewed by state television after Monday’s hearing, Tefileen reportedly also admitted to being trained and paid by the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency. After the hearing, the authorities assailed him of carrying out this work for “the love of Israel” — and for the money.
Israel, for its part, steadfastly denies the link.
“We don’t have anything new to say from what we have said in the past,” Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Aviv Sharon told reporters Monday in Israel.
“We don’t have any connection with any of those who stand trial now in Iran.”
But it was Tefileen’s trip to Israel that seems to be, from Iran’s perspective, the smoking gun for the entire case, said Hoenlein.
“Without him, there’s no case,” he said. “Getting him to confess was crucial.”
Tefileen has not yet been sentenced, though state television said he had asked for clemency.
Observers believe that Tefileen, an impoverished trader, may have been facing other trumped-up charges, like drug possession or smuggling.
He may have been offered leniency if he confessed to the spying charge. Or perhaps the freedom of his brother, Omid, was dangled before him.
Omid is one of three accused Jews who was released on bail in February, and is likely to be pardoned.
Either way, said Hoenlein, Tefileen and the rest are innocent.
“If this doesn’t give all the appearances of a setup, I don’t know what is,” said Hoenlein. “Listen, you sit in jail for a year, in conditions no one knows about. How can we judge someone in that situation?”
The trial will reconvene May 8 when Faramarz Kashi, also a part-time Hebrew teacher, is brought before the Revolutionary Court.
One issue that remains unclear, said Hoenlein, is whether those who “confess” will take the fall for the rest or if the entire group will be punished. The sentence for spying ranges from six months to death.
Three years ago, two Iranian Jews also accused of spying were executed in Tehran.
To the despair of family, friends and American Jewish advocates of the 13 Iranian Jews, no representatives of the media, diplomatic corps, human rights organizations or Jewish groups are being allowed to monitor the trial’s proceedings.
The reason, say Iranian officials, is fear for “national security.”
In this and all Iranian court cases, the judge also acts as investigator, prosecutor and jury, which observers say is clearly a recipe for judicial abuse.
Israel, which is viewed by Iran as an archenemy, steadfastly denies any link with the 13 Iranian Jews.
“The accusations against them are cruel lies,” said Michael Melchior, the Israeli minister in charge of relations with world Jewish communities. He warned Iran that the Jewish state would not tolerate the persecution of Jews elsewhere.
“Just as we fought for Jews who have been in this situation before in Iran and many other countries around the world,” Melchior said, Israel will not accept that Jews “again become victims just because they’re Jews.”
Lawyers for the accused assert that confessions are not enough to convict — under Iranian law, the state must also prove its case with evidence.
“There may have been confessions, there may have been an intention to spy, there may have been several trips to Israel and there may have been payments,” said one of the defense attorneys, Shirzad Rahmani.
“But if information damaging to Iran and beneficial to Israel was not actually exchanged, there can be no charge of espionage.”