Justice rather than Jews seen on trial in Iran
By Paul Taylor, Diplomatic Editor
LONDON, June 1 (Reuters) - To most international observers, the trial
of 13 Iranian Jews on charges of spying for Israel has been more of an
indictment of Iran's justice system than of the accused.
With a verdict expected within two weeks, few if any lawyers, human
rights activists or Western government analysts following the case have
been convinced either by televised confessions broadcast during the closed-door
trial, or by the judiciary's selective leaking of other evidence.
Yet to the dismay of Israeli officials, most European Union governments
seem unlikely to downgrade relations with Iran if the defendants receive
even lengthy prison terms, provided no one is sentenced to death, diplomats
``Even if some get long jail sentences, there is bound to be an appeal
and an opportunity for clemency, so I expect the European attitude will
be to criticise the procedure but carry on more or less with 'business
as usual','' one EU diplomat said.
British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, pursuing a ``critical engagement''
with states once seen as pariahs, is almost certain to go ahead with a
delayed July 4-5 visit unless the Shiraz revolutionary court passes a death
sentence, aides say.
Iranian justice officials appear to have ruled out the death penalty
for the Jewish defendants.
European Union governments believed from the outset that the charges
were trumped up by hardliners who control the judiciary, in their power
struggle with reformist President Mohammad Khatami, officials in several
EU capitals said.
The lowly social positions of the suspects -- shopkeepers, a kosher
butcher, Hebrew teachers and a rabbi -- made the espionage accusations
implausible, and Iranian ministers offered foreign interlocutors no evidence
to support the charges.
But EU states differed over whether to send diplomats to the court,
at the risk of lending credence to the proceedings, or steering clear of
the trial. Only the Netherlands sent an envoy, who ended up standing outside
the courthouse with reporters.
``Nothing that has occurred in Shiraz has changed our minds in the slightest,''
a senior European diplomat said. ``On the contrary, the conduct of the
trial only underscored our concerns about the lack of a transparent due
process of law.''
Yet while the United States has denounced a ``show trial'' and cited
it to oppose World Bank loans to Iran, EU states, except for France, have
largely confined themselves to calls for a fair and open hearing meeting
international legal standards.
France has western Europe's largest Jewish community. Prime Minister
Lionel Jospin last year branded the charges ``totally fabricated.'' Three
of his predecessors have signed a petition accusing Iran of failing to
respect fundamental rules of law.
Judith Yaphe, a Middle East expert at the U.S. National Defence University,
said Iran-watchers in Washington believed Islamic hardliners were using
the case to obstruct Khatami's rapprochement with the West.
But in a U.S. presidential election year, there was never a prospect
of a U.S.-Iranian opening, and the trial had merely added to the grounds
for a standstill, she told Reuters.
Leaders of the U.S. Jewish community, the world's largest, have charged
that the trial was motivated by anti-Semitism.
FLAWED JUSTICE SYSTEM?
While not all observers take Israel denials on trust, most international
attention has focused on what are seen as flaws in Iranian justice rather
than the question of the guilt or innocence of the accused.
``This has been like the Stalin-era trials in the Soviet Union. It was
not a trial but a political show,'' said Abdolkarim Lahidji, a Paris-based
Iranian lawyer who is vice-president of the International Federation of
Human Rights Leagues.
Concerns raised by Western officials and watchdogs such as Amnesty International
and Human Rights Watch are:
-- the suspects were held in isolation without access to either lawyers
or relatives for more than a year;
-- all those who ``confessed'' did so under unknown circumstances before
they had access to lawyers or relatives;
-- the trial has been held in secret despite pledges which some European
governments and South Africa say they received that it would be open;
-- in the Iranian legal system, the prosecutor is also the sole judge
-- creating what many observers see as a conflict of interest that is a
-- state television broadcast during the trial ``confessions'' by several
of the accused made in the absence of their lawyers. It has not broadcast
any of the defence case;
-- while reporters, diplomats and human rights observers have been barred
from the courtroom, the prosecution has given selective briefings and interviews
to set out the accusations against the accused.
Some of those allegations, such as a claim that the accused were planning
to contaminate Shiraz's drinking water, seem to be drawn from the classics
of anti-Semitic literature.
Critics say all the major Iranian political trials since the 1979 Islamic
revolution have been based on confessions and not evidence.
Given evidence of widespread torture documented by U.N. human rights
investigator Maurice Copithorne, such admissions are unlikely to be regarded
as credible outside Iran.