Spy trial puts position of Iran's Jews in jeopardy
By Geneive Abdo in Shiraz, Iran
The Guardian (London)
April 13, 2000
The long-awaited trial of 13 Jews on espionage and related charges begins
today, placing Iran under international pressure and prompting fear within
Iran's Jewish community that their freedom could be threatened.
At least 10 of the accused are charged with spying for Israel. If found
guilty, they face lengthy prison terms or even the death penalty. Three
may not be charged with espionage.
The leading lawyer Esmail Naseri said: 'All are accused of membership
in espionage networks or spying for Israel.' He implied that some could
have unknowingly been part of a network that spied for Israel. If that
were the conclusion of the court, the espionage charge would be dropped.
Rahmat Fazam, the father of Ramin, one of the accused, said: 'My son
did not do anything wrong. He can't even write his name.'
The hearings will be closed to the public according to the head of the
judiciary in Shiraz, the town in southern Iran where the trial will be
Since the case was made public almost a year ago, western governments
led by France and the United States have maintained that it is based on
trumped-up charges. Jewish groups abroad have voiced outrage, arguing that
the accused are innocent and are suffering religious persecution.
Some Iranian Jewish leaders said the suspects were communicating with
Israel by fax and email. Any communication with Israel is illegal.
The government has promised a fair trial, while putting foreign governments
on notice that their criticism will have no bearing on the verdict. The
furore over the case has sparked concern among leaders in Iran's Jewish
community, estimated at 35,000, that the religious freedom they have enjoyed
since the 1979 revolution might be slipping away.
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic republic, declared
that Jews should be protected. Jews trace their roots in Iran back 2,700
years, when Cyrus the Great allowed them to practise their faith.
For 20 years, they have led a secluded life centred on 56 synagogues.
The Jewish population in Iran has remained steady and many prosper as doctors,
lawyers and traders.
This case has thrust them into the spotlight. Some said they believe
Jewish groups abroad, as well as Israeli authorities, have done them a
disservice in claiming that the charges were motivated by religious bias.
'I don't think (the case) is based on a religious issue because in religious
terms we are free,' said Eshaq Niknava, deputy head of the Jewish Society
'The state has given Jews special privileges. The respect we get now
is much greater than in the past,' he added.
When the suspects were first detained last spring, the case remained
a secret. Jewish leaders in Iran and abroad worked behind the scenes with
Iranian officials to resolve the matter. Foreign governments also tried
to convince Iran to drop the charges.
But once the case was brought out into the open in June, the international
response placed Iran in a no-win political situation. If Iran had agreed
to drop the charges, the government's judicial system would have been vulnerable
to internal criticism.
'The Israelis and their allies forced the matter by going public too
soon,' said a senior western diplomat in Tehran. 'They wanted to show Iran
in a bad light and perhaps encourage the remaining Jews to leave.'
Under the reforming president Mohammed Khatami, religious minorities
from Zoroastrians to Kurds have been granted more rights than ever to practise
their religious beliefs and cultural rituals.
Jews earn credit in public schools for Hebrew courses; they are entitled
to a representative in parliament. And they are allowed to drink alcohol
and produce kosher foods.
'Khatami and his circle are free thinkers and they have allowed social
and cultural activities to be more free,' said Manuchehr Eliasi, the Jewish
MP. 'Our life has improved over the last few years.'