NEW YORK, May 17 (JTA) — The trial of the 13 Iranian Jews accused of spying for Israel moved into its final stages this week amid fresh concerns for the future of Iranian Jewry.
A second Jewish suspect denied the spying charges Wednesday, but Monday’s “confession” of a top religious leader has cast a shadow over all Jews there, say American advocates for the 13.
“Based on the way the trial has been portrayed, and broadcasting two of the confessions on television, the entire community is now suspect,” said Pooya Dayanim, spokesman for the Los Angeles-based Council of Iranian American Jewish Organizations.
“It also points to the prevailing anti-Semitism among the Iranian people, that they have been so willing to buy into this propaganda.”
Meanwhile, Dayanim and others expressed skepticism about an Iranian judiciary official’s assurances this week that none of the 13 will face execution.
It is unclear whether the announcement suggested that Iran is bowing to international pressure, or whether it is the latest in what advocates say is an unending trail of broken promises.
“I don’t know how much we can trust these things they say,” said Sam Kermanian, secretary-general of the Los Angeles-based American Iranian Jewish Federation.
“At the end of the day, it will depend on the political climate. The verdict will not be a judicial decision, it will be a political decision. We have to be prepared for the worst-case scenario at all times.”
Monday’s closed-court confession of Asher Zadmehr, the senior religious leader in the southern city of Shiraz, where the trial is taking place, came on the heels of a similar confession last week by another religious leader, Nasser Levi-Haim, 46.
“We’d been told earlier that the religious leaders would not be dragged into espionage,” said Dayanim, who added that the latest developments were prompting concerns about the community’s physical safety.
“The Jewish community is shocked and scared. Many have stopped going to work and sending their children to school, because they’re afraid of being taunted.
“They’re calling their children Israelis or spies.”
Eight of the 10 Jews who have come before the Revolutionary Court have “confessed” to assorted spying-related activities.
Their advocates contend the confessions were coerced and scripted prior to the hearings.
Three Jews out on bail since February are expected to be freed, said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
The judge in the case agreed Wednesday to allow the accused Jews to confront in court those who have testified against them, on May 24. However, the judge, who also acts as the prosecutor, still has not provided hard evidence of any crime committed, Hoenlein said.
Verdicts and sentences are expected by the end of the month, said Hoenlein, who has led the international campaign for their release.
Zadmehr, 49, is said to be a university English instructor and the most learned of the Shiraz Jews, a fervently Orthodox community.
Zadmehr, also the oldest of the 13 Jews on trial, reportedly admitted he had lived briefly in Israel before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, but returned home soon after.
He was quoted as admitting that he collected cultural information about Iran and analyzed material brought in by other accused spies.
But Zadmehr also denied he was the mastermind behind the spying, as some Iranian media reportedly asserted.
Outside the courtroom, Zadmehr burst into tears after being embraced by his distraught wife and two children, according to news reports.
Zadmehr’s court appearance was followed by an announcement by judiciary spokesman Hossein Ali Amiri that none of the 13 had violated the Islamic law of “moharebeh” — taking up arms against God and the state.
He gave no reason as to why they had not been charged with moharebeh, although many hard-line Iranian clerics have reportedly portrayed the Iran 13 as traitors and called for their executions.
Assuming that they are not going to be executed, it appears that the 10 likely to be convicted will be sentenced for anywhere from 2 to 10 years behind bars, but some may be let off with time served.
Some of the 13 were arrested in January 1999, while others were jailed in March of last year.
In another sign that Iran is trying to quell international criticism, the hard-line judge in the case allowed the first two foreign observers — two lawyers from the French-based organization Lawyers Without Borders — to visit the courtroom Monday, but only when it was empty. They were barred from the actual hearings, according to news reports.
In what may be an effort to paint this case as not explicitly anti-Jewish, Amiri, the spokesman, for the first time offered vague descriptions of the eight Muslims said to be accomplices in the spy ring.
Several work as high-level figures in the provincial military and health services, though they remain unnamed and out on bail, said Amiri.
Regardless of the Iranian maneuvers, advocates like Hoenlein are working to ensure that Iran pays a price for its handling of the case.
While some countries have indicated they may withdraw their ambassadors from Iran and cut their diplomatic relations if the judgments are seen as excessive, Hoenlein wants to hit Iran where it hurts — financially.
His organization, the Conference of Presidents, is pressing member countries of the World Bank to further delay or cancel a planned $231 million loan package to Iran at the World Bank’s meeting Thursday.
The larger of the two loans, for $145 million, would improve waste water collection and distribution for some 2.1 million people in greater Tehran. The second loan, for $86 million, would improve the quality of primary health
care and family planning services in both rural and urban areas.
The United States, Canada, Austria and France are fighting against the loan, said Hoenlein, while Germany supports the loan.