LOS ANGELES, Feb. 4 (JTA) — The last five Iranian Jews still held in an Iranian prison have been released on “vacation,” although it remains uncertain whether they will be permanently freed. The uncertain status of the five underscores 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 five were among 13 Jews who were arrested in January and March 1999 on charges of spying for Israel. Three were subsequently 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. But their advocates — as well as media, diplomats and human rights experts from around the world — pronounced the closed trial a fraud. Israel denies that the men 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. Five of the imprisoned 10 were released after serving some or all of their time. The “vacation” just granted the five remaining prisoners was granted in honor of the Ten Days of Fajr, a holiday celebrating the overthrow of the shah of Iran in the Islamic Revolution. News of their release came in two government-controlled Iranian newspapers that were cited by Pooya Dayanim, president of the newly formed Iranian Jewish Public Affairs Committee in Los Angeles. The news was confirmed by Maurice Motamed, the sole Jewish representative in the Iranian Parliament, who is currently in Los Angeles on an extended family visit. The five Jews were furloughed about 10 days ago, said Motamed, who added that he hoped the release would be permanent. Other sources urged caution in commenting on the new development. Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, who has been involved with the case from the beginning, warned that public comment might endanger the future of the five Jews. “I hope and pray that their release will be permanent, but as of now I think the ‘vacation’ is a kind of test” by the Iranian government, Hoenlein said. Sam Kermanian, secretary-general of the Iranian American Jewish Federation in Los Angeles, also adopted a cautious approach. “At this point, we do not wish to make any comment,” he said. Meanwhile, the news of the “vacation” is complicated by apparent personal and ideological animosities among some of the Iranian Jewish spokesmen. Motamed said the “vacation” was achieved due to his personal intervention with the Iranian judiciary. But according to Dayanim, the government in Tehran made the move to bolster its human rights record before upcoming meetings with the British government and the European Union. On a more personal level, Motamed claimed that the five Jews would have been released months ago if Dayanim had not criticized the Iranian judiciary in a Voice of America broadcast. “I hope the ‘vacation’ will become permanent, unless there are further attacks on the judiciary,” Motamed said. Dayanim responded that following the release of three of the imprisoned Jews a few months ago, he had commented that the move was due to international pressure on Tehran.
Tom Tugend is JTA's Los Angeles correspondent. A veteran journalist, he also writes for the Jerusalem Post, the Los Angeles Jewish Journal and the London Jewish Chronicle.