NEW YORK, May 10 (JTA) — Six of the seven Iranian Jews who have gone before Iran’s Revolutionary Court have “confessed” to spying for Israel.
The first plea of not guilty came Wednesday, as 31-year-old Farzad Kashi, a religion teacher, told the judge he did not pass sensitive material to the Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence agency.
Earlier in the day Kashi’s brother, Faramarz, 35, reportedly admitted he was guilty of such activities.
American advocates for the accused, however, remain adamant that the allegations against all 13 of the Iranian Jews on trial are unfounded. They maintain that the hearings are a scripted political show trial.
The hearings are slated to continue on Monday.
That Farzad Kashi pleaded innocent was either part of the script or perhaps a small act of defiance, said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
“It means Farzad didn’t bend to the pressures being applied,” said Hoenlein, who has closely monitored the hearings.
At the same time, advocates like Hoenlein have two new concerns: that the string of admissions may be creating strains in the global coalition that has rallied to the defense of the accused, and that within Iran the admissions are provoking persecution of the entire community of 25,000 Jews.
“The concern we have is that too many well-meaning people are starting to doubt themselves,” said Hoenlein.
“As each one confesses, people on all sides are asking, ‘How can they all be confessing?’ But they don’t understand the circumstances under which these confessions are being made.”
At a closed hearing Monday, Ramin Farzam, 36, and Nasser Levi- Haim, 46, also a part-time Hebrew teacher, allegedly confessed.
Levi-Haim’s confession, in particular, startled advocates, who had been led to believe by their sources within the Iranian judiciary that religious leaders in the community would not be lumped into the group of so-called conspirators.
After the hearing, Levi-Haim reportedly told reporters: “I swear on the Torah, in whose service I have been for 40 years, that I was under no duress in court to confess. I got religiously involved, and I was tricked by Israeli agents.”
There appears ample reason to be skeptical about his confession.
In the Revolutionary Court, the judge is also the prosecutor, the jury — and the chief interrogator behind bars, said Sam Kermanian, secretary-general of the American Iranian Jewish Federation in Los Angeles.
“The authorities don’t even need to use physical or psychological torture,” said Kermanian.
“The judge could visit and say, ‘Listen my son, you cannot hope to get anywhere by not cooperating with me.’ Anybody in their right mind would think, ‘OK, this guy can execute me if he wants. My only chance is if I give him what he wants and hope for leniency.’
“Some of them have been in prison for almost 16 months, where their only contact with the outside was five minutes a week of supervised time with their families, through thick glass and monitored telephone. The other 10,075 minutes of the week, they were under the influence of the authorities.”
The Iran 13 would also be well aware of the fate that has befallen other Iranian Jews accused of spying.
Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, 17 Iranian Jews have been executed, most of them having been convicted of espionage.
Spying is also a common charge leveled against Iranian dissidents. The punishment has ranged from short prison sentences to execution, but some of those convicted have also had their eyes gouged out or limbs severed.
Confessions are commonplace and often repeated on television, just as two of the seven Iranian Jews have done, said Pooya Dayanim, spokesman for the Los Angeles-based Council of Iranian American Jewish Organizations.
“The Iranian public has come to recognize that these confessions are made under pressure,” Dayanim said.
Still, there are signs that many in the Iranian public are reacting negatively to the aired confessions. Media reports from Iran state that Jews — even Jewish children — are now experiencing harassment on the street, at work and in school. There are reports of anti-Jewish graffiti and fears of an economic boycott of Jewish-owned shops
One Jewish woman, the wife of one of the spy suspects, reportedly pleaded with photographers outside the courtroom to not take her photograph.
“I work at a health clinic, and I don’t want any problems,” she was quoted as saying. “I don’t want people pointing fingers at me.”
That some outside observers are now wondering if the 13 are in fact guilty of the charges is prompting activists like Dayanim to release more details about how this case evolved into the international showdown it is today.
Dayanim revealed, for example, that soon after the 13 Jews were arrested in January and March of 1999, the Islamic hard-liners who control Iran’s judiciary opened a line of communication with the Los Angeles community.
The purpose, he said, was to articulate their motives behind the arrests — and what they hoped to gain from this maneuver.
In a power struggle with their reformist rivals, the hard-liners would use the Iran 13 to undermine the reformist camp’s relations with the West.
The Iranians also suggested that the prisoners could become bargaining chips in Iran’s ongoing effort to recoup some $650 million that it claims Israel owes from business deals prior to the 1979 revolution.
Finally, the hard-liners said, according to Dayanim, detaining the Jews would teach the Iranian Jewish Diaspora — which had spoken out about the arrests — a lesson about meddling in Iran’s internal affairs.
“In all the contacts we’ve ever had with Iranian officials, they have never claimed these 13 people were spies,” said Dayanim. “They were very forthright and up front about the fact that this is part of a game, and to show that Iran will not be bullied and that they have ultimate control over their citizens.”
Kermanian now expects the remaining six suspects to confess to some role in the alleged spy ring. Sentencing is likely to come at the end of the month.
“There will be more confessions, and the authorities will fabricate any sort of documents or evidence they need to fabricate to make their point,” he said. “If they don’t, that’s what would be surprising.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.