Iranian Jews' jailing 'will hit growing ties with west'
By GUY DINMORE and AVI MACHLIS SHIRAZ and JERUSALEM
Financial Times (London)
July 3, 2000
As a stern Revolutionary Court official read out the 70-page ruling
by the judge who had just jailed 10 Iranian Jews for spying for Israel,
trays of ice-cream and soft drinks were handed out to foreign envoys and
reporters sweating in the heat of a Shiraz Saturday afternoon.
But despite such typical Iranian hospitality and well-meaning attempts
to respond to international concern over the conduct of the closed trial,
diplomats yesterday said the case would continue to impede Tehran's hesitant
rapprochement with the west.
With defence lawyers almost certain to appeal against the jail terms,
a process that could take months, hardliners within the Iranian system
also hang on to a strong card in their continuing power struggle with reformist
supporters of President Mohammad Khatami.
The long-awaited outcome of the trial of the 13 Jewish men, who were
arrested in stages over a year ago, had been seen as an important indicator
of the strength of Iran's conservative-dominated judiciary. Defence lawyers
said the prosecution's case rested largely on confessions given while the
defendants were held in solitary confinement with no lawyers present.
Two prominent ayatollahs last year called for the death penalty, but
in the event Judge Sadeq Nourani imposed jail sentences of four to 13 years
for 10 of the accused and acquitted three others.
Two Muslims, a factory owner and a military man, both accused of passing
information to the alleged espionage network, were jailed for two years.
Two other Muslims, both said to have military backgrounds, were acquitted.
International reaction was swift but fairly restrained. US President
Bill Clinton said he was "deeply disturbed", Canada expressed
its "grave concern", while the European Union registered "concern".
Canada put the trial, which it called seriously flawed, in the context
of the judiciary's recent closure of reformist newspapers and arrests of
leading reformers. These all "raised serious concern about Iran's
future", Lloyd Axworthy, foreign minister, said.
Diplomats said the jail sentences were heavier than expected but their
governments' reaction was muted, in recognition of the fact that the appeals
still had to be heard, and that excessive condemnation could further weaken
Mr Khatami, who is regarded as a welcome moderating influence.
Iran's president, a Shia Muslim cleric, has decided to go ahead with
a visit to Germany on July 10 despite a storm of protest by hardliners
in response to a conference critical of Iran held in Berlin in April. Several
of the Iranian participants - prominent reformists - have since been arrested
or charged with acting against national security.
Iranian commentators said Mr Khatami was taking a considerable risk
by going to Germany, with his visit likely to trigger protests by Iranian
militants based in Europe and criticism by hardliners at home.
Uncertainty over the outcome of the trial prompted Robin Cook, Britain's
foreign secretary, to call off his visit to Iran, originally scheduled
for tomorrow. Mr Cook would have been the most senior British official
to visit Tehran since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
News of the arrest of the 13 accused a year ago and its probable impact
on Iran's foreign relations was one factor in the poor B-2 rating given
then to Iran by Moody's, the credit rating agency. Moody's analysts are
expected to return to Tehran before Iran issues its first eurobond later
this year, for as much as Euros 500m (Pounds 317m). Iran is hoping this
time for at least a B-1 rating.
For Iran's 30,000 or so Jews - the biggest community in the Middle East
outside Israel - the trial has been a traumatic driving force behind an
accelerated rate of emigration. Community leaders have dismissed the charges
of espionage as fabricated.
Relatives of the accused walked for miles to hear the verdict, announced
on the Sabbath, when observant Jews abjure transport. The sister of Hamid
Tefilin, the 31-year-old seller of shoes accused of masterminding the spy
network, collapsed in a hysterical heap when she heard of his 13-year jail
Others were relieved that no death penalties were imposed.
* Avi Machlis adds from Jerusalem: Israel and Jewish organisations around
the world condemned the verdict and insisted - as they have since the trial
began - that they were completely innocent. The Jewish state also appealed
to the international community to help secure their release. "Israel
will not rest until all the prisoners are released," Israel's foreign
The US-based Anti Defamation League, a Jewish group that fights anti-Semitism,
said the trial was an "illegitimate farce" that "contravened
international judicial norms", and urged the Iranian government to
free the convicts immediately.