Three Iranian Jews Released; Hopes Raised for Five Still Held

Three of eight Jews imprisoned in Iran on charges of spying for Israel have been released, raising hopes that the remaining five will be set free soon.

Released Thursday were sporting goods merchant Javid Beit Yakov, 42, who had been sentenced to nine years in prison; and religion teachers Farzad Kashi, 32, and Shahrokh Paknahad, 24, who had received eight-year sentences.

The men had served only three and a half years of their sentences on charges of aiding the “Zionist regime.” Israel has said the charges are baseless.

U.S. advocates for the Jewish prisoners, who over the years have been outspoken in their defense — and harshly critical of the Iranian government — were tight-lipped about the release.

That seemed to stem from hope that the other five would be released soon, and fear that gloating might discourage Tehran from freeing them.

There was no official word from Iran on the release. Analysts said the release might be due to a supposed power struggle between relative moderates in the Iranian regime who favor detente with the West and conservative clerics who have maintained a grip on power since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

“Due to the extraordinary circumstances surrounding this release, we at this time choose not to make a comment,” Pooya Dayanim, spokesman for the Council of Iranian American Jewish Organizations in Los Angeles, said in a prepared statement. “We are in contact with the U.S. State Department — which has shown a great commitment to human rights and religious freedom in Iran — to formulate a response over the next few days.”

Even more reticent were two other activists at the forefront of the campaign to free the Jews: Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and Sam Kermanian, secretary-general of the Iranian American Jewish Federation in Los Angeles.

Both refused to comment.

Israeli President Moshe Katsav, himself Iranian-born, also was said to be muted in his reaction to the release.

Recently, the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reported that Katsav had said, “To my delight, no evidence has been found against them, and most of the” imprisoned Jews “will be released in the near future.”

There was no official statement from Katsav on Thursday, however.

Analysts for months have suggested that several factors may be pressing Iran: That President Bush lumped Iran with Iraq and North Korea in his “axis of evil,” by the prospect of a U.S.-led war against Baghdad and by the possibility that Iran may be the next target of America’s year-old war on terrorism.

It’s not only from Washington that Iran is feeling the heat.

Europe, a significant economic partner, reportedly has cited Iran’s disregard for human rights and its treatment of minorities as impediments to improved relations.

Some U.S. activists had hoped that the eight Jews would be pardoned on the eve of the Jewish New Year in early September, but that failed to materialize.

According to analysts, the tension between Iranian hardliners and reformers influenced the original arrests, and may determine the fate of the five still in jail.

Thirteen Jews were arrested in January and March 1999, but three were found innocent of the espionage charges and released. The other 10 were sentenced in July 2000 to jail terms of four to 13 years.

The men appealed, and in Tehran reduced the sentences from two to nine years in September 2000.

Two men already were released after serving out their terms.

Israel has flatly denied that the Jews were its spies. Advocates for the men say that what really bothered Iranian authorities was the men’s increasingly fervent brand of Orthodox Judaism.

Most of the men were religious leaders from the southern Iranian city of Shiraz, a bastion of religious conservatism.

The arrests were perceived as a warning to the rest of the community, and there was initial fear that the men might be executed.

In addition, observers say, inciting the public against the “Zionist enemy” and “collaborators” in their midst is an easy way for the mullahs to distract the masses from economic hardship and lack of freedom.

In May 2000, after more than a year in solitary confinement, the 13 gave “confessions” for Iran’s Revolutionary Court. But their advocates — and media, diplomats and human-rights experts from around the world — pronounced the closed trial a fraud.

Only 22,000 to 25,000 Jews remain in Iran today, of a community that stood at about 100,000 before 1979.

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