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Iran warns that Jewish "spies" risk death as Israel denies charges

TEHRAN, June 11 (AFP) - Iran's judicial chief warned Friday that 13 Jews charged with spying for arch-enemy Israel risk execution in a case that threatens to cloud efforts by moderate President Mohammad Khatami for detente with the West.

As thousands of angry worshippers at weekly Moslem prayers called for blood, Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi insisted it was a case of "treason" and the 13 suspects would be tried and sentenced in accordance with Islamic law.

"These people are charged with selling out the rights of 60 million Iranians to the Zionist regime," Yazdi told the crowds at Tehran University.

"The sentence, whatever it may be, will be enforced ... In certain cases the law calls for the death penalty."

Tehran announced Thursday that the 13 Jews who were arrested in the past two to three months would be tried in an Islamic court on charges of espionage, dismissing an international outcry as interference in its domestic affairs.

Iran's press has also vigorously denied that the suspects were arrested simply because they were members of the country's dwindling Jewish community, and insisted that the constitution gives religious minorities the same rights as Moslems.

"This is a case of espionage and has nothing to do with human rights," Yazdi said, adding that all developments would be made public.

The crowds of worshippers chanted demands for the speedy trial and execution of the 13, with one speaker urging the judicial authorities to "put them up against a wall and shoot them."

Iran's penal code was revised in 1996 to introduce the death penalty for those found guilty of spying for Israel or the United States, both avowed enemies of the Islamic republic.

Khatami, who has moved guardedly towards rapprochement with the West since he took office in the Islamic republic in August 1997, has made no direct comment on the affair. But in a speech on Thursday, he took his adversaries to task, saying: "Some people, take advantage in every possible way in order to disrupt the government's plans."

A number of senior clerics are campaigning against political and cultural liberalisation, which they consider a threat to the values of the Islamic revolution and the power of the clergy.

Israeli Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak categorically denied on Friday that the suspects were spying for the Jewish state.

"As a former head of military intelligence and a member of the intelligence services forum I can say with the greatest certainty that these Jews never carried out illegal activities in their country," Barak said on Israeli army radio.

Barak has called on both UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder of Germany to help obtain their release, while US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has condemned the arrests as "unacceptable."

But Yazdi charged that Israel and the United States were using "obselete arguments in raising the accusation of human rights violations."

Iran severed diplomatic relations with the Jewish state after 1979 Islamic revolution, while ties with the United States were cut in 1980 after Islamic revolutionary students seized took US embassy staff hostage in Tehran.

An estimated 25,000 Jews still live in Iran, but the numbers have fallen sharply from around 100,000 before the revolution, when Israel maintained warm relations with the regime of Shah Reza Pahlavi.


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