NEW YORK, May 22 (JTA) — The ongoing trial of 13 Iranian Jews charged with spying for Israel took an ominous turn this week when four of the defendants were reportedly also accused of spying for Iraq.
The four — all prominent religious figures in the Jewish community — allegedly spied for Iraq during its bloody war with Iran from 1980-88, according to two French human rights lawyers quoted by the French news agency, Agence France-Press.
The two lawyers have been the only foreigners permitted access — albeit much restricted access — to the court.
An Iranian judiciary official dismissed the claims as “baseless” on Monday, while an Iraqi official also weighed in from Baghdad, describing the reported accusations as “stupid.”
The confusion over what was or wasn’t said only underscores how suspect Iran’s handling of the case against the 13 Iranian Jews has been.
“It’s clear that different Iranian officials tell different things to different people,” said Pooya Dayanim, a spokesman for the Los Angeles-based Council of Iranian American Jewish Organizations.
The new wrinkle in the case came as the last three of the 13 Jews accused of spying for Israel proclaimed their innocence in court on Monday.
Whether or not the new charges are true, the rumor renewed fears that some of the Jews may face execution, a fear Iranian judiciary officials tried to dispel last week.
Since the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979, 17 Jews have been executed, many of them for spying.
If the new rumor is true, “It’s disturbing because it shows the Iranians are willing to charge them with anything,” Dayanim said.
“It’s a sign from Iran that they could still get the death penalty, because they were committing espionage at a time of war. It also shows that the fate of the Jews is completely in their hands, changing from day to day, on a whim.”
Indeed, Iranian authorities initially accused the “Iran 13″ of spying for the United States and Israel.
But when the trial began May 1, only Israel was mentioned. And now Iraq may be added to the mix.
The four rumored to be accused of spying for Iraq are Asher Zadmehr, 49, the top religious leader of the fervently Orthodox Jews of Shiraz, where the trial is taking place, and religion teachers Nasser Levi-Haim, 46; Shahrokh Paknahad, 30; and Faramarz Kashi, 35.
A verdict is expected by the end of the month.
The trio who faced the closed-door Revolutionary Court on Monday were the only three free on bail.
They are a student, Navid Balazadeh, 17; his uncle, Nejat Broukhim, 36; and Omid Tefileen, 26, whose older brother, Hamid “Dani” Tefileen, was the first to publicly “confess” to spying.
The others have been behind bars for more than 15 months.
American Jewish observers had expected that the three would be found not guilty, since the Iranian judge even encouraged them not to hire lawyers.
The fate of the remaining 10, though, remains unclear.
Eight have made clear “confessions” of wrongdoing, while a ninth admitted to some activities but not spying. The tenth has denied the charges.
However, Dayanim and fellow advocates for the 13 have maintained their absolute innocence throughout the trial.
They say the trial is rigged against the Jews and is a manifestation of the general conflict between hard-line and reformist forces in Iran.
The court has yet to produce evidence against the Jews, said Dayanim, who has closely monitored the trial.
The judge, who also acts as prosecutor, is armed only with the confessions, which the lawyers say is not enough to convict the suspects.
The lawyers, therefore, have demanded that the judge produce evidence and give their clients an opportunity to confront all alleged eyewitnesses. That wish may be granted on Wednesday, according to news reports.
Paradoxically, this, too, is a troubling development, said Dayanim.
Iran does not hold itself to Western-style democratic standards, and its officials have no qualms about taking steps that violate the country’s own laws or constitution.
The judiciary “can easily manufacture evidence and provide witnesses,” Dayanim said.
“They’ll do anything to try to win back respect for this shameful trial.”
Some fear the move may in fact be a ruse by the lawyers — who are said to have been court approved, if not court appointed — to lend credibility to the ultimate court verdict.
“The lawyers have never defended the 13 as if they were innocent, but as if they were guilty of some crime, just not espionage,” Dayanim said.
“They agree the Jews collaborated with a foreign state, but did not pass along sensitive information. This would still assure the Jews of jail sentences.”