Guilty verdicts threaten Iranian Jewry

NEW YORK, July 2 (JTA) — American Jewish politicians and activists say the conviction of 10 of 13 Iranian Jews accused of spying for Israel places Iranian Jewry under greater threat than at any other time in its 2,700-year history.

The worse-than-expected sentences also mean that Iran’s hard-liners may succeed in rolling back the minor steps made by reformers in thawing relations with the West, experts say.

The 10 guilty verdicts handed down Saturday produced sentences ranging from four to 13 years in prison. Three Jews, including a 17-year-old student, were found innocent.

Activists compared the outcome with the anti-Semitic blood libels of the 19th century and the Stalinist show trials of the 20th century.

The United States, Israel, Britain and France criticized Iran after the sentences were issued.

President Clinton called on Iran to “overturn these unjust sentences.”

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak told his Cabinet on Sunday that he would call on the international community to press Iran to free the 10.

For their part, Iranian officials attacked Western criticism of the verdicts, saying it was a violation of its national sovereignty. Some Iranian officials said the verdicts were too soft and might not deter others from spying against the Islamic Republic.

Anguished and irate, Jewish leaders vowed Sunday to redouble their efforts to secure the Jews’ freedom. At the same time, they said they will pressure Washington and its European allies to make Iran “pay a price” for the sentencing of 10 men whom they continue to assert are guilty only of being Jews.

“In fact, it was Iran that was found guilty of gross violations of human rights and rejecting the rule of law,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, at a small street demonstration in New York on Sunday.

In his verdict, the judge reportedly noted that all 10 men were guilty of contact with Israel, devotion to the Jewish state and study of the Torah.

Several of the 10 were religious leaders in the southern city of Shiraz. The others were their adherents.

The religious leaders received the harshest sentences.

The verdict could be appealed, said the chief lawyer for the 10, which could lead to reduced sentences or even clemency from Iran’s religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

However, there were also reports the Jews may be punished with fines and lashes — a common penalty for guilt.

“This is an absolute disgrace and a shame,” said U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.). “The U.S. Congress will not sit idly by. Iran must pay a price for this. Iran will pay a price for this.”

Engel said he and others would sponsor a resolution denouncing Iran and the verdict. There is also talk of tightening sanctions against Iran that were recently eased, and blocking Iranian officials from visiting the West. Jewish leaders are also organizing additional, perhaps larger street protests in the United States.

How these verdicts and heightened international pressure will affect the approximately 25,000 Jews in Iran — already down from 100,000 at the time of the 1979 Islamic Revolution — remains to be seen.

No Iranian official was quoted as offering any reassuring words to the rest of the Jewish community.

That only adds to the “panic and fear” pervading the community, and any Iranian Jew who is even outwardly religious may be vulnerable to similar accusations and punishment, said Americans in touch with them.

Not surprisingly, Jewish emigration from Iran has leapt since the trial began in April, American Jewish and Israeli officials told JTA. It may rise further now that hopes for clemency for the 10 have been dashed.

If there is any positive to be drawn from the verdict, observers say, it’s that the rallying of international public opinion prior to the verdict likely spared the Iranian Jews the death sentence.

Since 1979, 17 other Iranian Jews accused of spying have been executed, most recently in 1997 and 1998.

The difference, say American Jewish advocates for the “Iran 13,” is that the earlier arrests were virtually kept secret. The families reportedly heard about the executions only after the fact.

There are crucial similarities, however.

Then, as now, the charges were trumped up, say observers, with the Jews used as pawns in the political battles of the Iranian leadership.

U.S. Jewish leaders said they became convinced of the Iran 13′s innocence after conducting their own investigation and consulting with the CIA, FBI and the Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence agency.

In piecing together the genesis of the case, American Jewish officials say it originated innocently enough as a conflict within Iranian Jewry, between the community leadership in Tehran — which is said to go to great lengths not to offend the Islamic authorities — and an increasingly active, fervently Orthodox faction in Shiraz.

It wasn’t long before Iranian hard-liners seized on the dispute to undermine the Western outreach of their reformist rivals.

The Jews were arrested in January and March 1999.

Their imprisonment, and the subsequent threats of death, was a calculated move to provoke the West, say observers.

Though Iran’s Baha’i minority are far more persecuted, their plight generates nowhere near the emotional response, nor do their brethren outside Iran approach the global influence of the Jewish Diaspora.

Indeed, fueled by criticism from the United States and Israel, international condemnation grew louder as each new “injustice” of the Iran 13 case unfolded.

During the early stages of the trial in May, two of the accused Jews had their “confessions” broadcast on state-controlled television. It fanned the flames of Jew-hatred, and many Iranian Jews reported that they were afraid to go to work, or send their children to school, because some in the public now suspected all Jews of being spies. Several Jewish-owned shops were reportedly attacked, with one in Tehran set ablaze.

In all, eight of the Jews “confessed” to the charges, while a ninth admitted to gathering, but not disseminating, information to the Mossad.

But foreign observers insisted that the “confessions” had been coerced after 15 months of solitary confinement, with human contact limited mostly to the interrogators. The prisoners’ families were later allowed to visit for only five minutes per week.

During the trial itself, the courtroom was closed to the public and foreign observers, and the judge also assumed the role of prosecutor. According to Western law, that would be considered a clear conflict of interest.

Hard evidence was not provided, say American observers, a violation of Iranian law. The verdicts were therefore based on the “confessions,” say Iranian authorities, which raises more questions about their validity since four of the Jews recently recanted their statements in second appearances before the judge.

On Sunday, Iran’s judiciary described the Jews’ espionage activity as part of a 20-year conspiracy against the Islamic regime — yet was unable to provide any evidence to support its claims.

Moreover, if the Jews were indeed guilty, many questions remain unanswered: How would Jews who were mostly simple shopkeepers, clerks or teachers have had access to military sites and other sensitive information? Why would the Mossad, one of the most respected intelligence agencies in the world, hire Jews who live under a microscope? And why would the Mossad not have simply gotten such data from satellites?

Nevertheless, the verdict may have been a compromise of sorts.

To the Iranian public, judiciary officials can maintain that they did indeed root out a spy ring. To the outside world, they can point to the “leniency” and “fairness” they have demonstrated — by their standards — in that some Jews were acquitted and no one will be executed.

But now the focus may turn to President Mohammed Khatami. As the leading reformer, Western governments have pinned their hopes on him.

Yet, his silence during the trial suggests many possibilities. Analysts say it may indicate how deeply anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist sentiment runs through Iranian society, and therefore how politically unpopular it would be to speak out on behalf of those accused of collaborating with the “Zionist regime.”

Moreover, it suggests either how impotent Khatami may be to challenge the fundamentalists’ hold on power, or perhaps Khatami’s own complicity, and that he is not nearly as “moderate” as advertised.

“Iran does not deserve to be treated as a moderate nation,” U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) said at the New York demonstration Sunday. “This leopard has not changed its spots.”

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