KHATAMI WORKING HARD TO ASSURE FAIR TRIAL FOR IRANIAN JEWS

SHIRAZ (Iran) 14th Apr. (IPS) Aware of the terrible consequences Iran may face in case some of the Iranian Jews accused of espionage are sentenced to death, the Iranian President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami has worked out with the Judiciary a "middle of the road" solution to save both face at home and relations with the outside world, according to highly informed sources in Tehran.

"President Khatami and Judiciary Head Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi-Shahroudi have agreed that there would be some sentences but no execution", the source told Iran Press Service on condition of anonymity.

Iran's Jewish community has been nervously awaiting the trial and reformist supporters of President Mohammad Khatami are equally concerned: anything short of a proper trial could spell the end of international support for the reform movement, which has made the rule of law an ideological cornerstone. The hearing is being held at a critical time in the struggle between Mr Khatami's pro-reform supporters and conservative Islamic hard-liners.

"The verdict will provide a marker as to the success of Khatami in acquiring greater control over his own government", one Iran watcher observed.

The parody of trial of 13 Iranian Jews charged with spying for Israel and the United States finally started on Thursday in Shiraz, the capital city of the southern Fars Province and was immediately postponed to after Ashoura, a week long period that starts on Friday when religious fervour is at its height as Iran's predominantly Shiite Muslims mourns the death of Hossein, their third and most revered imam with self-flagellation.

The postponement of the hearing to after the Ashoura period was demanded by the court imposed defence, observing that lawyers had not the time to study the 300 pages case.

Expressing satisfaction at the proceeding, a representative from the New York-based Human Rights Watch attending the trial said Friday that a demand presented by the leaders of the Iranian Jewish community to let the accused to pass the Jewish Passover period with their families could get a positive answer from the Court.

Being held behind closed doors for reasons of "national security" despite earlier promises by the authorities that the trial would be open to the public, the proceedings could not be monitored by diplomats from Canada, Holland, Switzerland and South Africa plus a good number of foreign journalists and at least one observer from a human right organisation who had travelled to Shiraz, but it was held behind closed doors.

"With regard to the special circumstances of the case and also because it regards the national security of the Islamic Republic, the Islamic Revolutionary Court has issued orders that the proceedings be closed," Mr. Hossein Ali Amiri, the court's president explained.

Amiri said some of the suspects had confessed to the charges and asked for pardon. "The court had exchanges of letters and documents which proved that espionage had taken place", he added.

Other sources said two others had asked to be converted into Islam.

But Mr. Esma'il Nasiri, the lawyer's spokesman said though all are accused of membership in espionage networks or spying for Israel, but one can not make judgement before reading the file".

"It is not important for the families of the defendants whether the court hearing is public or in camera but the important issue is to conduct a fair trial", the official news agency IRNA quoted Mr. Manouchehr Eliasi, the MP for the Jewish community as having assured

He has also told IRNA that the four defence lawyers have been named by the families of the suspects in co-ordination with the Jewish community and the judicial officials.

But informed sources confirmed that the lawyers, including Mr. Nasiri, a former Revolutionary Courts judge had been "imposed" on the families.

Dealing with issues like terrorism or national security, the Islamic Revolutionary Court has no jury. The judge leads the investigation, prosecutes and hands down the sentence and verdict.

If convicted, the suspects could get long prison terms or death sentences.

The trial opens amid a renewed power struggle between ruling hard-liners led by Ayatollah Ali Khameneh'i, the staunchly anti-American, anti-Israeli leader of the Islamic Republic and the moderate President Mohammad Khatami who works hard to foster better ties with the outside world, particularly the European Union.

The men, mostly synagogue servicemen, butcher, teacher of Talmudic canons and Hebrew, one of them a 16 years-old schoolboy, were arrested more than a year ago on order from the then Fars Province Intelligence Department Head who, with some senior members of the Intelligence Ministry, were plotting against President Khatami.

That's the reason why, contrary to many previous cases, efforts deployed in total secrecy by the community leaders both inside and outside Iran to have them released were not heard.

From a peak of around 80,000 before the Islamic revolution of 1979, the number of the Iranian Jewish community dwindled to about 25,000, still the largest and the freest in the Middle East.

Like the Christians and the Zoroastrians, Jews are officially recognised as minority by the Iranian Constitution and have one MP at the Majles (parliaament).

As the trial started, the United States, the European Union, France, Germany, Britain and other countries warned that the trial and its outcome could affect their relations with Iran. The United Nations, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have either condemned the arrests or called for a free and fair trial.

"The free world can not stand idly by when people are tried simply because they are Jews", Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak said in a statement issued by the Defence Ministry after he met French Defence Minister Alain Richard in Tel Aviv. Barak is also defence minister.

Iran says the faith of the accused has nothing to do with their accusation, adding that eight Muslims are also charged in the same espionage case.

But observers pointed out that the so-called Muslim were reported to have been arrested months after the issue of the Jews broke out in the one hand and on the other, they are free on bail.

"No matter who these (Muslims) people are, but the fact is that they had been just added to the Jews to make it look like it was a national security matter having nothing to do with the Iranian Jews", one analyst asserted.

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. ENDS JEWS TRIAL 14400

THE STATEMENT OF THE CIJOA

The Coalition of Iranian Jewish Organization Abroad (CIJOA), representing the Iranian Jewish communities of the United States and Europe, deplores the recent developments in the case of the Jewish prisoners held in Iran on the baseless charges of spying for Israel and the United States, and once again requests the Government of Iran to accord these prisoners their basic human rights.

1. Notwithstanding the efforts by the Central Jewish Committees of Tehran and Shiraz to appoint independent lawyers for the accused and promises made by the Government of Iran with respect to a fair trial, the accused were not given the chance to appoint counsels of their choice.

2. The court appointed four lawyers to defend the accused, two of whom are former judges of the revolutionary court. None were known to the community or entrusted by it to carry out the defense.

3. On Saturday, April 8, the spokesperson of Iranís judiciary announced that on the previous day the prosecuting judge had paid an extra-judicial visit to the prisoners, without the presence of lawyers. The pretext of the visit was to "congratulate them for Passover", two weeks before Passover begins. The result of this meeting was that the prisoners "agreed" en-mass to the appointment of the court appointed lawyers as "attorneys of their choice".

This flies in the face of all internationally accepted legal procedures.

4. Except for 5-minute supervised visits with their families each week, for over 13 months, the prisoners have been deprived of contact with the outside world. They have not had a single consultation with any independent outside parties, including their court appointed lawyers. It is therefore not surprising that given the conditions they are in, they would submit to pressur es from the authorities.

5. Confirmation of the appointment of the lawyers was only issued earlier this week. Nonetheless, in an interview with Iranís official news agency, Mr. Nasseri, the lead "defense" attorney appointed by the court confirmed last night, i.e. twenty four hours after his appointment, that he has reviewed the files and commented that:

"The admissions by the accused Jews, as reflected in their files, along with other facts therein was evidence of their engagement in espionage activities in Iran"

If this is the position that the "defense" team is taking, we should shudder at the thought of what the prosecution may have in mind.

Mr. Nasseri has since retracted this statement.

CIAJO, which has been following this case since the day that the 13 Jews were arrested firmly believes that the above shocking and unprofessional statement and its manipulation by Iranís official press agency is yet another clear indication of how the Government of Iran intends to carry out this pre-determined and orchestrated show trial.

We request that the international community, human rights organizations, all Jewish organizations, and justice loving people of the world condemn this process as a sham and an affront to due process.

We call upon the United Nations and all member states to take all necessary actions to protect the rights of minorities in Iran.

Finally we call upon the noble people of Iran to stand by their Jewish brothers in these difficult times as they have done since the liberation of the Jews by Cyrus the Great. ENDS