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Remaining Iranian Jews Released from Jail on an Indefinite Furlough

Iran has released the final five of 13 Iranian Jews arrested on charges of spying for Israel, but — unlike three other Jews set free last week — this quintet has not been pardoned, American advocates say.

The five seem to have been released on furlough for an indefinite period of time, raising concerns that the men have been left in legal limbo and are vulnerable to being rearrested at the whim of the Iranian authorities.

Both Israel and the Iranian Jewish community deny the men ever spied for “the Zionist regime,” as Tehran alleges.

The uncertain status of the five seems to underscore the precarious situation faced by the entire Jewish community in Iran. They now number between 22,000 and 25,000, down from 100,000 or so prior to the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

The three released last week — who reportedly were granted a pardon directly from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — 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.

Meanwhile, the three leading U.S. Jewish organizations that have led the crusade to win the men’s freedom were cautious not to criticize the nature of their release.

“Based on information we have received from Iranian Jewish leaders in Tehran, we wish to disclose that the other five remaining prisoners in Shiraz have been given an extended leave of absence from prison as permitted under the Islamic code of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Pooya Dayanim, spokesman for the Council of Iranian American Jewish Organizations in Los Angeles, said in a prepared statement. “We continue to choose not to comment on the circumstances surrounding this extraordinary set of events.”

Similarly circumspect were Sam Kermanian, secretary-general of the Iranian American Jewish Federation in Los Angeles, and Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

“We are obviously glad the prisoners have reunited with their families,” Kermanian said via e-mail. “However, we feel any further comment at this point will be premature and irresponsible.”

“It remains very sensitive,” Hoenlein said, “and therefore any comment would not contribute anything and could only be counterproductive for the goals we all share.”

Analysts suggested 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 revolution.

The guarded reactions of their advocates may be precisely what the authorities are aiming for: freedom for the Jews that will persuade Iranian exiles to hold their tongues at a time when Tehran may be trying to curry favor with both Washington and Europe.

Indeed, the tight-lipped response to the three releases last week may have paved the way for the second stage of releases Monday.

Analysts for months have suggested that several factors may be pressing Iran: President Bush’s lumping of Iran with Iraq and North Korea in his “axis of evil”; the prospect of a U.S.-led war against Baghdad; and 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.

In a development that may be related, some Iranian student leaders from 1999 riots also reportedly were released indefinitely this month.

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.

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 Tehran reduced the sentences from two to nine years in September 2000.

Two men already were released after serving out their terms.

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.

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