Jews on trial
April 15, 2000
BY THE time the 13 Iranian Jews accused of espionage had their day in
court, all sides were searching for a graceful way out. Their trial in
Shiraz, the southern city where most of the accused Jews live, opened on
April 13th; it will continue on May 1st. But the charges were filed a year
ago, and the intervening period has been filled with the noisy outrage
of western governments and Jewish groups. Jewish leaders inside Iran admit
privately that they wish that their defenders in the West had been a little
less zealous in their support. And some senior Iranians concede that, if
their people had applied a bit of common sense before bringing the charges,
the whole episode would have been avoided.
Iran faces the dual task of convincing the world that the Jews will
receive justice while, at the same time, insisting that outsiders should
mind their own business. A week ago, the presiding judge paid a rare visit
to the ten accused in jail (three are out on bail) to wish them a happy
Passover. At the trial itself, the judge said that he was considering a
plea to let them go home for the festival, which starts on April 20th.
The judge's savvy public relations, intended to head off potential charges
of religious persecution, was balanced by an announcement from Iran's foreign-ministry
spokesman that the views of other countries would have no impact on the
verdict. He was responding to repeated warnings, particularly from France
and the United States, that the case was being watched with care. Although
neither diplomats nor journalists were allowed into the courtroom, the
diplomats made their presence felt.
The key question is whether the accused, who include a rabbi, three
Hebrew teachers, a kosher butcher and a teenage boy, did in fact spy for
Israel. Iranian law recognises five different degrees of espionage, which
carry penalties that range from six months in prison to execution.
Although the Iranian authorities did not reveal in advance what specific
misdeeds the Jews are accused of, one of the 13 has now been identified
as a "lead suspect". At the hearing on Thursday, four of the
other suspects were said to have confessed to their crime and asked the
judge for leniency. The chief defence lawyer denies this.
The imprecision of the charges, over the past year, has fuelled the
assumption that the suspects probably did no great wrong. Iran's Jewish
community feel sure that they are innocent. Their worst offence, insist
their fellow-Jews, may be that they sent faxes or e-mails to relations
in Israel. Such communication, though officially illegal in Iran, is usually
tolerated. Many Jews openly admit that they have been in touch with their
Israeli relations for years.
Hardliners in the judiciary may have pressed the charges because they
wanted to chill President Muhammad Khatami's slowly warming relations with
western governments. Another theory, advanced by some Jewish sources in
Iran, points to inter-Jewish rivalry. Jews living in Tehran are much less
strict in their beliefs than those in Shiraz, and it is conceivable that
this led to somebody supplying bait for the undiscerning Iranian authorities,
thus prompting an investigation. Once the case gathered momentum, there
was no turning back.
Iran's Jewish leaders reject the claim made by Jewish groups abroad
that the case is based on religious persecution. Since the early years
of the 1979 Islamic revolution, Iran's 35,000 or so Jews have gained considerable
freedom to practise their beliefs. There are 56 synagogues across the country;
Hebrew classes are held. The government has donated 11 tonnes of flour
to the Jewish community this year to make unleavened bread for Passover.
Even the current pressure is not driving Jews to emigrate. "We like
our lives in Iran and we are striving to keep the community alive,"
maintains Manuchehr Eliasi, the Jews' representative in parliament.