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Senior Iranian rabbi meets spy case judge

TEHRAN, April 5 (Reuters) - The spiritual leader of Iran's Jews has met the judge in the case of 13 co-religionists charged with spying on behalf of Israel, Iranian state radio reported on Wednesday.

The 13, detained along with eight Moslems, could face the death penalty.

"Rabbi Yousef Haim Hamedani Cohen, religious leader of the Iranian Jews, met with the judge on the case of the 13 Jews accused of spying," the radio said.

It said the judge of a revolutionary court in the southern city of Shiraz asked the Jewish community to help ensure the suspects were properly represented by lawyers.

The judge said he was prepared to waive the deadline for appointing counsel, which had already passed, in order to resolve a row over legal representation.

The trial has been set for April 13 but there are indications it may be delayed, in part because of a running dispute over lawyers for the accused.

The trial date also coincides with the beginning of the Islamic month of Moharram, when religious sentiment among the majority Shi'ite Moslems runs particularly high.

On Monday, the spokesman for the judiciary said the accused had been assigned experienced lawyers by the bar association after the defendants failed to name their own counsel.

But he said a delay was likely if new lawyers were appointed and requested additional time to prepare their defence.

In Geneva, the United Nations human rights investigator for Iran last week urged a fair trial for the 13, saying 10 of them had been denied access to the lawyers they wanted.

Authorities have not given details of the case against the defendants, saying only that they allegedly passed secret information to the Jewish state, Iran's arch-enemy. Israel has denied any ties to the defendants.

The case has triggered an international outcry and threatens to cloud President Mohammad Khatami's drive for better ties with the West. Israel has denied any connection to the defendants.

For its part, Iran has promised the defendants will receive a fair trial regardless of their religious faith.

In Paris on Wednesday, French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine said France and other western countries would base Iran's capacity to develop on the way it handles the case of the 13 Iranian Jews. He told the National Assembly the case reflected a power struggle between modernisers and Islamic hardliners in Iran.


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