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Iranian Jews 'unlikely to get harsh sentences'

By Guy Dinmore in Tehran
Financial Times
June 2, 2000

Thirteen Iranian Jews accused of spying for Israel are not expected to receive harsh sentences, a senior Iranian official said on Thursday commenting on a trial that has raised international concern and threatens to set back Tehran's developing ties with the west.

Mehdi Karrubi, speaker of Iran's newly elected and reformist-dominated parliament, said the international community should not fear a miscarriage of justice by the Revolutionary Court meeting behind closed doors in Shiraz, but neither should it interfere in Iran's affairs. "Because of Islamic compassion and national interests, harsh sentences will not be imposed, as far as I know," Mr Karrubi, a 63-year-old cleric with close ties to the establishment, told the Financial Times.

The trial of the 13 men, three of whom are on bail, began in April, over a year after the first of the accused was arrested. Judge Sadeq Nourani is expected to deliver his verdict within days after lawyers submit their final defence documents next week.

Mr Karrubi declined to define what he meant by "harsh". Two prominent ayatollahs last year called for the death penalty in the event of a guilty verdict. One western ambassador said on Thursday he expected some of the accused to be released and light sentences imposed on the others.

Mr Karrubi noted that some of the accused had confessed in court to espionage. Defence lawyers have argued the prosecution produced no evidence or witnesses and questioned the circumstances of confessions made during detention with no lawyers present.

Mr Karrubi acknowledged that some influential hardliners in Iran might want to misuse the case to undermine the reformist foreign policy of President Mohammad Khatami, but he insisted this was not the aim of the judiciary. He also sympathised with lawyers who have questioned the fairness of the judicial system, in which the judge also acts as investigator, prosecutor and jury. The new parliament would revise laws on the judiciary, Mr Karrubi said.

Mr Karrubi backed the president's policy of promoting academic and sporting ties with the US, which broke off relations with Iran after its embassy and staff were seized by revolutionary students in 1980.

He said such moves had had "positive effects," but declined to comment on whether Iran would accept US calls for a start to negotiations on restoring relations. Iran demands that Washington first lift its economic sanctions.

Iran's parliament, inaugurated this week with Mr Khatami's supporters outnumbering his conservative rivals for the first time, elected Mr Karrubi as temporary speaker.

Mr Karrubi, head of the reformist Association of Combatant Clerics, was confident he would be confirmed in the post later this month, despite misgivings voiced by the largest pro-reform party, the Participation Front.

Despite his reputation as an old-guard leftist, Mr Karrubi said he would support privatisation and the break-up of state monopolies as well as Iran's first private radio and television stations.


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