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Jews' Confessions Sow Fear in Iran

Associated Press Writer

May 9, 2000, SHIRAZ, Iran (AP) - In the wake of two Iranian Jews' televised confessions to spying for Israel, the Jewish minority that has lived in Iran for more than 2,000 years is retreating into isolation, fearing their countrymen will brand them traitors. Photo here

The two defendants are from a group of 13 Iranian Jews on trial for espionage before a closed revolutionary court, where there is no jury and the judge also acts as prosecutor. Three others have also confessed to the charges, either in court or before reporters. Defense lawyers have cast doubt on the confessions and the fairness of the court.

``Because the whole country is watching these confessions, Iranian Jews are becoming more isolated and their children are being regarded with contempt by classmates in school,'' said lawyer Esmail Naseri, who represents three of the accused.

Some Jews have even stopped going to work for fear of suspicion, said Naseri, a Muslim.

``The manner of this trial and the televised confessions have left a very negative impact on the lives of Jews in Iran,'' he said.

Arash Fakhiri, a 20-year-old Jewish shopkeeper in the southern city of Shiraz, where the trial is being held, said his community is demoralized and terrified.

``Some people are treating us like spies. I heard that a Jewish girl at an elementary school was taunted by her classmates, calling her a spy,'' he said.

The 13 defendants were arrested over the span of more than a year. Since their closed-door trial began last month, Iranian television has aired confessions from Dani Tefilin, a shoe salesman, and Shahrokh Paknahad, a religion teacher. They said in separate confessions that they were trained and paid by Israel to gather secrets in Iran.

``My husband has told reporters a few good jokes about his being guilty,'' Paknahad's wife told a reporter outside the court.

``He is the most innocent person I know,'' she said, refusing to give her name. When asked if she could be reached later, she turned away, saying ``my phone is bugged.''

The wife of defendant Nasser Levihaim, who told the court Monday he was the No. 2 man in the spy ring, pleaded with photographers not to take her picture as she waited outside the courthouse.

``I work at a health clinic, and I don't want problems,'' she said. ``I don't want people pointing fingers at me.'' She, too, refused to give her name.

At every hearing, anxious relatives of the accused wait outside the courtroom, some rocking back and forth in the traditional manner as they read the Torah, the Jewish holy book. They look scared, and none will give their names to reporters.

Fear has spread through the Jews of Shiraz, who control much of the city's business. Most of the Jewish shop owners on Shiraz's main Zand avenue will not talk to reporters about the trial or give their names.

Jews in Iran have faced some government restrictions since the 1979 Islamic revolution, but have been free to practice their religion.

Before the revolution, some 80,000 Jews lived in Iran, holding positions of power and influence as businessmen, lawyers and senior civil servants in the key oil and banking sectors. Now, only about 25,000 remain, still the largest number in the Middle East outside Israel.

Jewish leaders say the trial has started another exodus, mainly among the young.

The trial is expected to last a few more weeks. It comes amid a power struggle pitting Iranian moderates loyal to President Mohammad Khatami against hard-liners opposed to his social and political reforms.

Western states have expressed concern about the fairness of the proceedings. Israel has denied the spying charges.

``The selected, edited screening of the confessions is illegal and politically motivated,'' said Naseri, whose demand that the trial be opened to reporters was rejected Monday by judge Sadeq Nourani.


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