JERUSALEM, Feb. 19 (JTA) — The last five Jews still held in an Iranian prison have been released, according to a U.S. Jewish leader. “We welcome” the news “and hope that it will now be permanent,” Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, told JTA on Wednesday. Hoenlein received word of the release while he was in Jerusalem attending the Conference of Presidents’ annual mission to Israel. Earlier this year, the five were released on what Iranian officials referred to as a “vacation,” but they were put back in jail this past weekend before getting their freedom. The shifting fortunes of the five reflects 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. Five of the 10 who were sentenced were previously released after serving some or all of their time. 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 provided an easy way for Iran’s religious leaders to distract the masses from economic hardship and lack of freedom.
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