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Exiled Iranian Activists Query Trial Confessions

DUBAI, May 8 (Reuters) - Iranian human rights activists in Europe charged on Monday that spying confessions by Jewish defendants at a closely watched trial in Iran may have been extracted under pressure.

"This is a game that has long existed in Iran. It was so before the (1979 Islamic) revolution and it has only become worse since," said Mahmoud Rafi, head of the Berlin-based League for the Defence of Human Rights in Iran.

"These so-called confessions fool no one in Iran or abroad."

Two of the 13 Iranian Jews on trial on espionage charges in southern Iran admitted on Monday that they worked for Israeli intelligence, their lawyer said. Three others made similar confessions last week. Israel denies having ties with the group.

"Confessions by defendants, who have spent more than a year in solitary confinement with almost no contact with relatives or lawyers, have little legal value," Paris-based human rights activist Abdolkarim Lahidji told Reuters.

"This is a political trial and the defendants are victims of the Islamic republic's psychological war against Israel. It is likely they have been forced to confess through threats and pressure," said Lahidji, a vice-president of the International Federation of Human Rights Leagues.

Many Iran analysts say the trial is part of a drive by hardliners, who control most courts, to exacerbate tensions with Israel and the United States, Iran's arch-foes, and block efforts by reformist President Mohammad Khatami to improve ties with the West.


Iranian officials deny this and reject charges that the confessions were extracted under duress. Some of the accused, on trial behind closed doors, have appeared in front of Western reporters to repeat their admissions and deny they were pressured.

"In the past 21 years we have seen confessions extracted from the likes of Saidi-Sirjani and (communist) Tudeh party leaders," Rafi said.

Dissident writer Ali Akbar Saidi-Sirjani died under mysterious circumstances in detention in 1994, shortly after confessing to receiving money from a foreign intelligence service to attack the Islamic government in his articles.

Reformists inside Iran have questioned official reports that the writer died of a heart attack, saying his death may have been part of the serial killings of dozens of dissidents.

Since 1979 a top aide of the late shah, almost the entire politburo of the pro-Soviet Tudeh party and leaders or activists of dissident groups and the Iraq-based Mujahideen Khalq have been shown on state television confessing to crimes.

Televised confessions by dissidents were also commonplace under the shah, who was deposed by the 1979 revolution.

"Under Iran's Islamic laws, convictions are primarily based on confessions and not evidence. This is a basic flaw which leads to pressure on defendants to confess," Lahidji said.

Lahidji and Rafi said Iran had rejected requests by Western human rights groups to hold a public trial for the accused Jews and allow international observers to attend.

Iranian officials say the trial is held behind closed doors because of national security concerns. They have rejected what they see as foreign interference in the case.

Diplomats in Tehran say heavy sentences at the trial may undermine efforts to improve Iran's ties with the outside world.


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