JOHANNESBURG, June 8 (JTA) — Former President Nelson Mandela is defending his recent statements that 13 Iranian Jews are getting a fair hearing in their espionage trial.
Speaking Wednesday at a party for a new book written by the nation’s chief rabbi, Mandela said, “I am doing everything to save the lives of those people.”
He said that he warned U.S. Jewish leaders in New York last month that “by condemning the trial, you are endangering the lives of those 13,” who are accused by Iran of spying for Israel.
After Mandela called the espionage trial “free and fair” during his U.S. visit last month, the American Jewish Committee canceled a luncheon in his honor.
“What we must consider is how to save those 13 and the best thing to do is not to force the Iranians to say, ‘We want to show the United States of America and Israel that we are an independent country — so we are going to pass the death sentence and execute those people,’ ” Mandela said Wednesday.
The former president drew applause from the 300 people — including legislators, ambassadors and the local Jewish leadership — who had turned out to celebrate the publication of Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris’ book, “For Heaven’s Sake: The Chief Rabbi’s Diary.”
Mandela, 82, who crusaded for decades against South Africa’s apartheid system and later became the country’s first black president, has enjoyed warm relations with South Africa’s Jewish community.
However, Mandela is believed to be the only high-profile figure in the world to have spoken out in favor of Iran’s handling of the trial, which began last month.
A verdict is expected in the coming days.