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Iran to try 13 Jews charged with spying for Israel

TEHRAN, June 10 (AFP) - Iran announced Thursday that 13 Iranian Jews will be tried on charges of spying for arch-enemy Israel in a case that has whipped up a storm of condemnation among world political and religious leaders.

Under Islamic law, the 13 could face the death penalty if convicted.

"Iranian justice will study the case completely independently and the verdict will be announced in line with Iranian law," foreign ministry spokesman Hamid-Reza Assefi said.

But Assefi denied that the suspects had been arrested because they were members of the Jewish community, saying Iran's constitution gave religious minorities both civil and religious rights, state television reported.

He also dismissed the protests from Israel and the United States in particular as "interference in Iran's domestic affairs" and criticized "irresponsible remarks by people who are ill-informed."

The Iranian authorities late Wednesday confirmed foreign media reports that 13 people had been arrested on charges of spying for Israel, but did not specifically identify them as Iranian Jews.

"Thirteen spies who had been working for the Zionists have been arrested," said the director general of the Iranian intelligence service in the southern province of Fars.

US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on Wednesday described the arrests as "unacceptable" and Israeli Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak has urged UN chief Kofi Annan and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to take action.

Germany holds the rotating presidency of the European Union and is Iran's biggest trading partner.

But the Iranian press warned the United States and other countries not to interfere.

"The US call for the release of the spies is flagrant interference in Iran's internal affairs, which is condemned by international standards," the English-language Tehran Times said.

It said those arrested in February and March were members of Iran's Jewish community and described the case as "a matter of paramount significance to our national security."

The paper accused foreign intelligence agencies of hiring agents from Iran's religious minorities in order to "garner the information needed, but also to raise a hue and cry if those spies are arrested, charging Iran with mistreating its religious minorities."

It reminded Washington that one of Iran's preconditions for rapprochement with the United States after almost 20 years of severed relations "was its pledge not to meddle in Iran's internal affairs."

In September 1997, Iranian national Siavosh Bayani was executed after being found guilty of spying for the United States.

"In no country are spies allowed to go on with their espionage activities", the Tehran Times said. "The spies will be tried within the framework of the law, and there is no need for other countries to worry about them."

"Those countries making a ballyhoo over the arrests of some spies in Iran had better mind their own business instead of poking their nose into Iran's internal affairs."

Iran and Israel had excellent relations under the Shah, but broke off ties after the Islamic revolution in 1979.

Many Iranian Jews fled the country after the revolution, leaving a community currently put at about 27,000. Judaism is recognised as an official minority religion along with Christianity and Zoroastrianism.


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