IRANIAN JEWS GO ON TRIAL AMID FEAR AND HOPE

PARIS 29TH Apr. (IPS) Thirteen Iranian Jews accused by the Islamic authorities of espionage for Israel and the United States are to go on trial on Monday, amid speculations that considering the present tense and explosive situation prevailing in Iran following the clamp down on reformist press and personalities, they may either receive harsh sentences or get a fair judgement.

Arrested in February 1999, the news surfaced first in France in June, after sustained efforts carried secretly by Iranian and international Jewish organisations with the Iranian authorities failed to secure the release of the accused men, among them Hebrew language and school teachers, synagogues servicemen, religious personalities, kosher butcher, a circumciser and a 16 years-old boy.

Though the authorities never presented any document confirming their charges, but highly informed sources explained that the thirteen men were in fact the innocent victims of the power struggle raging between the hard liners and the reformists.

In fact, the men were arrested on order from Mr. Mostafa Kazemi, one of the senior members of the Intelligence Ministry involved in the murder of many Iranian dissidents, including five prominent politicians and intellectuals in November and December 1998.

"In order to punish President Mohammad Khatami who had forced the Intelligence Ministry to make public that its high ranking officers had carried out the assassinations, the ring leaders around Mr. Sa'id Eslami, the mastermind behind tens of terrorist operations and assassinations inside and outside Iran decided to arrest some Jews as to create international outcry against the government in the one hand and to divert the public opinion from the chain murders on the other", the source explained.

But even though the plan did not worked that way and after the suicide of Mr. Eslami in prison (in fact he was killed) the Judiciary that was under the hawkish Ayuatollah Mohammad Yazdi, an ultra conservative staunchly opposed to Mr. Khatami and his reform process not only stick to the fabricated charges, but openly accused them of espionages, suggesting they should be hanged.

As Jewish organisations, led by French Jewish groups, mounted a vigourous protest campaign against the Islamic Republic in Europe and the United States, the Iranian authorities multiplied contradictions, double speak and counter charges, insisting that the accusations had nothing to do with the faith of the arrested men.

To prove that claim, Tehran suddenly added eight Muslims to the spy ring in the one hand and putting on a more modern version, said the suspects had transferred to Israel highly sensitive military documents not by courier via Turkey, as they had first said, but by the way of sophisticated electronic mail, forgetting probably that very few people in Iran have access to private computing.

Under intense international pressure, Tehran bowed to hold an open trial and said the detainees could choose their own lawyers. But again they changed their mind, rejected the lawyers provided to them by Iranian Jewish organisations inside and outside the country, replacing them by four men of their own.

But the first séance of the trial on 13 April opened at the Shiraz Islamic Revolution's Court behind closed doors, with tens of journalists, diplomats from four European countries and South Africa, lawyers for the defence and observers kept outside, lasted less than an hour, being postponed to after the Shi'a Muslims mourning period of Ashoura.

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.

But the Court's Head Hossein ali 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.

The trial opens amid a renewed power struggle between ruling hard-liners led by Ayatollah Ali Khameneh'i, the staunchly anti-American and 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.

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.

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

"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.

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.

From a peak of around 80,000 before the Islamic revolution of 1979, the number of the Iranian Jewish community dwindled to between 25,000 to 30.000, 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. ENDS JEWS TRIAL 29400