After nearly seven months in jail, 13 Iranian Jews imprisoned by their government on suspicion of spying for Israel and the United States faced the prospect of formal charges Thursday.
Iranian Jewish activists here said the government had completed its investigation of the 13 and was prepared to announce its results. They cited Manouchehr Eliassi, the Jewish community’s official representative in Iran’s parliament, as among their sources.
While no one had any information on just what the government’s decision would be, expectations were widespread that at least some would be charged with espionage — a capital offense. If so, all agreed, it will mark a dramatic new phase in the effort to help them.
“This will be the end-game,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.
Among other things, Jewish leaders will face the challenge of marshalling international support to hold Iran to written assurances its foreign minister has made to world leaders promising those accused “a fair trial with all assurances linked to a correct legal proceeding.”
At the same time, Jewish leaders will almost certainly face pressure from activists to publicly denounce the government and the legal system for proceeding further down a path toward execution of any Jews found guilty.
The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, American Jewry’s umbrella group for Mideast issues, was set to hold a conference call Wednesday to discuss its course of action.
Both the U.S. and Israel have vehemently denied using any of the 13 as spies. Composed mostly of ultra-traditional Orthodox Jews and local religious leaders, the group reportedly includes rabbis, Hebrew teachers and a ritual slaughterer. The prisoners, from the cities of Isfahan and Shiraz, were arrested in two sweeps, in January and March. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are among the human rights groups that have issued alerts on their behalf.
The expected announcement comes as a bitter struggle between relative moderates and hardline fundamentalists within Iran’s government continues to deepen. An outbreak of student protests last month against the hardliners was followed by a backlash that has left the moderates in at least temporary retreat. Jewish leaders remain fearful that if they feel threatened, hardliners could seize upon the Jews’ case to whip up public support.
Then, there are the realities of attempting to make the best out of Iran’s legal system.
“At this point, I don’t know if they’re talking about indictments or a trial that could start even the same day,” said Sam Kermanian, secretary-general of the Iranian American Jewish Federation.
Under Iran’s system, the judge also serves as chief investigator and prosecutor, and trials have been known to be opened and completed on the same day the indictment is announced. In addition, say Iranian legal experts, as with all political crimes in Iran, any espionage trials will be under the jurisdiction of Iran’s revolutionary court system. These courts, which are separate from the regular criminal courts, have generally not allowed defendants to have attorneys, though there have been exceptions.
If there is a trial, said Kermanian, “We want to see all defendants allowed to hire attorneys immediately and all files turned over to the attorneys, who must have time to prepare a proper defense.”
All this would constitute an exceptional gesture under Iran’s system. But even if it is granted, Iranian Jewish leaders say finding attorneys with the necessary talent and courage to take on the system will be difficult.
The case is also not simple. Some of the 13 Jews have reportedly visited Israel. Though this does not constitute espionage, it is illegal in virulently anti-Zionist Iran. Some fear what the authorities could do under Iran’s legal process to make it look sinister, if indeed such visits have occurred.
In addition, according to several accounts, some of the 13 have links to foreign Orthodox groups that have helped them financially in meeting their community’s religious needs. Some fear this, too, could be used against them.
“One is beginning to see the outline of these charges,” said Professor Shaul Bakhash, an expert on Iran at George Mason University in Virginia. “The government will probably say they got funding from ‘Zionist’ organizations, even if it was only for educational purposes, for yeshivas.”
Iran’s Jewish community, which dates back more than 2,500 years, numbered some 70,000 before Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution. There are an estimated 25,000 Jews there today. Most live in the cities of Tehran, Isfahan and Shiraz. In recent years, emigration, while somewhat difficult, has been possible for those who seek it. But those still there for the most part want to stay.
Under the Islamic Republic’s constitution, Jews are one of three explicitly protected religious minorities, with the right to practice their religion and organize communally. But five Jews have been executed in the last five years, and some activists assert their Jewishness played an important role. Seventeen have been executed since the 1979 revolution.
Others within the Iranian Jewish community maintain the previous executions lacked a clear attempt at targeting Jews. This case, they say, is different.
“The attack on these 13 is an attack on Jewish identity, and on the community,” said one source in touch with Iranian authorities, who spoke on condition he not be named.
When the arrests of the 13 took place in January and March, the government initially made no announcement or any public charges. Jewish leaders, including those within the Iranian Jewish community who maintain contacts in Iran, kept the matter under wraps, too, hoping to resolve things through quiet diplomacy.
But in June the government announced the 13 were being held as spies, and Iranian media and senior national leaders from the hardline faction openly attacked them.
Jewish leaders responded with a two-week campaign of public meetings, press conferences and public appeals for the Jews’ freedom. But fears about playing into the hands of the hardline faction in Iran led Jewish leaders to heed the urgings of some long-established leaders in the Iranian Jewish community to shut this campaign down.
At the same time, however, Jewish leaders continued to marshalling support throughout the international diplomatic community. Senior diplomats and officials in Britain, France, Germany, Russia, Japan and elsewhere warned Iran its hopes for improved diplomatic and economic ties — a key goal of the relatively moderate President Mohammad Khatami — would be harmed if the Jews were executed.
This week, however, the foreign minister of Japan, who is on a state visit to Iran, reportedly planned to use the occasion to announce approval of the first PART of a multibillion-dollar loan for dam construction in southern Iran. Previously, the Japanese had held up the loan, hinting human rights concerns.
In the U.S., the large Iranian Jewish diaspora, which is concentrated in Los Angeles, has been visibly split since the 13 were arrested. A newer, more assertive group, the Council of Iranian Jewish Organizations, has strongly challenged the policy of Kermanian’s federation against public protest.
On Wednesday, Pouyeh Dayanim, one of the leaders of the council said that if all 13 are charged with espionage, “There should absolutely be mass protests. We should try to bring this not before the governments of the world, but before the eyes of the people of the world.”
But if only some are charged and others released, as many consider likely, Dayanim urged reflection before acting. “We must wait and see what the charges are, and against how many.”
Both factions agreed that monitoring and highlighting the nature of any trials was crucial.
“This will highlight how Iran treats everyone, not just Jews,” said Dayanim. “If we approach it in this manner, we will win support from a lot of governments and institutions that care about human rights, such as the right to confront your accuser, to not make forced confessions, and the right to an attorney.”