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Advocates See ‘crunch Time’ for Iranian Jews Slated for Trial

April 5, 2000
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Advocates see `crunch time’ for Iranian Jews slated for trial As Iran prepares to try 13 Iranian Jews accused of spying for America and Israel, American Jewish organizations are unleashing an 11th-hour flurry of high-profile activities aimed at both highlighting the plight of the “Iran 13” and pressuring Tehran to end the entire yearlong ordeal.

An Iranian official reportedly announced this week that his government would delay by a few days the April 13 trial date to permit the Jews’ court-appointed lawyers more time to prepare their case.

It is unclear whether Iran will honor an additional request by the prisoners’ families that they be allowed to return to their homes for Passover, which begins the evening of April 19.

But advocates in the United States — uncertain what to believe about the trial’s status — say they are proceeding as if it will take place as planned.

“Now it’s crunch time,” Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said Tuesday.

“We have tried all along to give the Iranians face-saving opportunities and not box them in, but there’s been very little response. Those imprisoned have suffered long enough, and we simply want them reunited with their families.”

Whatever the date, say observers here, the prospects for a fair trial now seem more remote than ever.

The fundamentalist clerics who control Iran’s courts continue to flout Iranian law, say American observers, preventing the defendants — who could be sentenced to death — the right to choose or dismiss their own lawyers.

The clerics also appear likely to renege on promises to permit media and foreign observers to monitor the court proceedings.

Both Israel and the United States vehemently deny the charges against the Iranians, most of them communal or religious leaders from the southern cities of Shiraz and Isfahan.

Until now, U.S. advocates have pursued quiet diplomacy, marshaling support from many governments and human rights groups to release the detainees — or to ensure a fair trial.

But having seen little progress, the advocates are now taking a more high- profile approach.

On the diplomatic front, Hoenlein said he expects the U.S. Congress to pass a bipartisan resolution that will denounce Iran for its detention of the Jews.

Governments around the world are being asked to pass similar resolutions, he added, while various leaders — including some from Arab and Muslim countries – – have indicated they will step up efforts to pressure Tehran.

At the grass-roots level, vigils, but not street demonstrations, are being planned at various locations in the United States, said Hoenlein,.

Nationwide, rabbis across the religious spectrum have agreed to recite special prayers this weekend. And in Los Angeles, the Council of Iranian Jewish Organizations will hold a special commemoration on Sunday to mark the one-year anniversary of the arrests of 10 of the Iran 13.

The Jews were reportedly arrested along with eight Muslim men. But none of the 21 has been formally charged, which also violates Iranian law, says Pooya Dayanim, the council’s president and himself a lawyer.

“Basically, these Jews are hostages,” said Dayanim. “Iran may feel the longer it delays the trial, the less it will be internationalized and hurt them. Our job is to remind them that the world community still cares about these people.”

The Jews are all community or religious leaders — except for a 16-year-old boy who is one of three now out on bail.

Their arrest was believed to be part of a political battle between Iran’s hard- line revolutionaries and reformists behind Iranian President Mohammad Khatami.

American observers had hoped that the resounding victory of Iran’s reformists in the Feb. 18 parliamentary elections would bode well for the Jewish prisoners.

If anything, however, their situation has worsened, said Hoenlein.

“All the things we’d been promised and thought would come true, just the opposite has happened,” he said.

“The mythology of Khatami being a reformer is just that — mythology. So far, he has not shown himself to be any different from the others. If he’s in control, the buck stops with him and he’s responsible for this situation. If he’s not in control, why are we dealing with him and making concessions?”

Hoenlein was referring to the March 17 announcement by U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright that the United States would lift sanctions on the import of Iranian luxury goods, such as carpets, pistachios and caviar. Iranian oil remains off-limits.

The move was seen as a reward to Iran’s reformists for their parliamentary triumph.

However, Hoenlein says he was encouraged by Albright’s more recent comment that how Iran handles the trial will be a “barometer” for future U.S.-Iran relations.

Dayanim also expects Washington to keep the pressure on.

“Sentencing these Jews to long prison sentences would delay the improvement of relations,” he said. “We have a lot of friends in Congress.”

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