PARIS 21 Feb. (IPS) The last Iranian Jews who were arrested in 1998 in the southern city of Shiraz on charges of spying for Israel were freed this week, on the eve of the arrival to Tehran of a delegation from the United Nations Human Rights Commission, a source close to the Iranian security services confirmed Saturday.

"The information is correct", confirmed Mr. Hamid Sabi, a London-based lawyer, adding that the decision had been taken three months ago, but had been delayed for several reasons, including local situation.

Israeli officials welcomed the news of the prisoners' release and described the development as "very interesting," Maariv reported. The officials said the surprise move came as part of an Iranian overture to the West ahead of the expected American attack on Iraq.

"We welcome" the news "and hope that it will now be permanent," Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organisations, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA).

"They were part of a group of thirteen people, religious teachers, merchants and synagogue servicemen, belonging to a Jewish sect that, ironically, prohibits any political activity.

Three of the original 13 were acquitted at their trials in July 2000, while the other 10 were given sentences of between four and 13 years.

The case drew worldwide attention and condemnation, as the international community accused Iran of fabricating the charges. At the time, there was fear that the 13 might even be executed, as they had "confessed" to their "crimes".

Nevertheless, Mr. Menashe Amir, Head of the Persian service of Kol Israel, or the Voice of Israel Radio, warned that unless the release is made public by an official announcement, it could be retracted at any time and the five could be re-arrested.

"They were told to go home and take all their belongings, but nothing in Iran is sure", Amir said. "There are so many different groups, nobody knows if somebody is released that he won't be arrested again."

"The authorities in Iran wanted to show they are respecting human rights", Amir said, adding that if the release is for real it was brought about by heavy pressure on Iran from the international community and by the fact that a human rights delegation from the United Nations was visiting Iran.

But Mr. Sabi reminded that not only the prisoners had been "pardoned" some three months ago, but it was was due "mainly" to "unabated but silent activities" by the community's leaders, lawmakers and other officials he did not named.

"Special security organs, controlled directly by Ayatollah Ali Khameneh'i, the leader of the regime, usually take some ordinary people, or involved in petty crimes, like stealing, drug dealing, prostitution etc, belonging to minority groups, like the Jews, the Christians, the Baha’is, accuses them of spying for the United States, Israel, or both, or even for plotting to overthrow the Islamic Republic and place them behind bars. Then, when pressures mounts from international quarter, they start to release them by small number", the source explained, on condition of anonymity.

Originally, the source told Ian Press Service, the men were arrested as part of a scenario aimed at diverting the public attention from the murder of five prominent politicians and intellectuals by high-ranking officers of the Intelligence Ministry. They were accused of having send "classified military, economic and other vital information" to Israel and the United States by courier, via Turkey, an ally of both Washington and Tel-Aviv.

But as the trial started, and with the media ridiculing the Judiciary, reminding them that in the era of internet and cell phones, there was no need to use over-land courier carrying highly secret information in the one hand and the murderers arrested on the other, the bewildered authorities dropped both Turkey and America as the end users, keeping Israel alone, charging that the Jewish States had used the religious fervour of the accused to obtain information about Iran.

"The government knew that they hadn't committed any crime... The so-called confessions were taken by promising they would release them and then used them to convict them," he said. Several of the prisoners made televised confessions.

"They wanted to get rid of this burden," he said. It was a burden because they knew the ten hadn't committed any crime, he added.

With an estimated 25,000 to 30.000 Jews out of some 80.000 to 100.000 before the Islamic revolution of 1979, Iran has the largest Jewish community in the Middle East outside of Israel, enjoying –to a certain degree though – freedom of exercising their faith. Like other officially recognised religious minorities, that also include the Christians and the Zoroastrians, the community has one representative at the Majles, or the Iranian parliament.

Since Israel became a state in 1948, some 76,000 Iranian Jews have immigrated to Israel. The present Israeli President, Moshe Katsav and former Chief of Israel Army Joint Staff, Shaul Mofaz and former Air Force commander are all of Iranian origin.

However, the Iranian clerical leaders openly call for the destruction of the State of Israel and its replacement by a Palestine populated with its "original inhabitants". ENDS JEWISH PRISONERS FREED 21203