Implicitly rebutting several senior government authorities, the Central Jewish Committee of Iran last week publicly asserted for the first time that 13 Iranian Jews currently imprisoned on suspicion of spying for Israel and the United States are innocent.
Putting its own resources on the line, the committee, which serves as the umbrella group for Iran’s 25,000 Jews, also announced it was prepared to raise money for attorneys to defend the imprisoned Jews.
The Jewish council’s assertions, made in a Rosh HaShanah letter to the Jewish community, obtained and translated by The Jewish Week, came as conditions and prospects for the 13 jailed Jews appeared to take a turn for the worse.
Sunday, yet another senior judicial official reaffirmed the jailed Jews’ guilt, though they have yet to be tried. And according to Iranian Jewish community leaders here in touch with their families, kosher meals, which were earlier obtained for the 13 after a long effort, have been curtailed for the last two weeks.
Most of the 13 are known as religious leaders and activists in Isfahan and Shiraz, where they are jailed. If convicted they face execution. The United States and Israel have denied using any of them as spies.
Though the government promised in writing in July to grant the jailed Jews “a fair trial with all assurances linked to a correct legal proceeding,” the 13, who have been jailed since March, have yet to see any attorneys. In their statement the Jewish council leaders asserted their right to such counsel, and to a public trial.
“We request that the authorities, and especially the judge, allow them to defend themselves,” the council wrote, adding: “Those being held have civil rights which they can use to defend themselves in public court — for example the right to an attorney.”
In a clear embrace of those jailed, the committee described many of them as “our religious teachers” and said, “Most of them are well known in the Jewish community.
“The fact of the matter is that, with their minimum pay, [they] could have found other means of supporting themselves in other parts of the world.”
Instead, the committee noted, “They have stayed. They are living in the most simple way. Spying requires instruments which these individuals, whom we well know, did not have for carrying out such a task.”
The council’s assertions were seen as striking for a communal leadership whose position under Iran’s Islamic regime is delicate. Privately, some working on behalf of the jailed Jews have even compared its role to that of a Judenrat, the Jewish councils utilized by the Nazis in some east European ghettos to implement their policies.
But Sam Kermanian, secretary-general of the Los Angeles-based Iranian American Jewish Federation, said that given the community’s circumstances, “I think this letter was daring on their part.”
Indeed, the letter at one point refers to deep rifts the case of the 13 Jews has provoked within the community’s own ranks.
In some sections, the letter could be read on different levels. Several passages emphasize the community’s loyalty to Iran. Others condemn “Zionists and other enemies of the nation,” and the “imperialistic media, which spreads news that in Iran anti-Semitism is prevalent.”
But the committee also invokes the malign specter of these forces on the jailed Jews’ behalf.
“Our highest hope is that the Jews be cleared so as to prove the [foreign] media wrong,” the letter states, “so that such accusations [of anti-Semitism] do not stain Iranian society and allow an opportunity for Zionists and other enemies of the nation to separate the Jews of Iran from the rest of Iran, as occurred in other Islamic countries after World War II.”
Meanwhile, however, yet another senior government official this week declared the 13 Jews guilty. In an interview with Jomhuri Eslami, a hardline Iranian daily, the chief of the Tehran revolutionary court claimed Sunday that the government possessed “irrefutable evidence” against them.
“It is certain that those people are spies and the documents obtained by [Shiraz] Department of Information are strong and sufficient,” declared Hojatoleslam Gholamhossein Rahbarpour.
“The Zionist regime was definitely involved in the spying,” Rahbarpour told the paper. He repeated charges that the defendants had dispatched “members of their network abroad for training” and helped “some Iranians to illegally leave the country.”
Nevertheless, Rahbarpour, whose jurisdiction as chief of Tehran’s revolutionary court is restricted to that city, said the case of the 13 must be judged by the judicial department in Shiraz, where they are jailed.
Rahbarpour’s statements follow others by senior officials prejudging the Jews as spies. In June, as thousands of Friday worshipppers at the Tehran University Mosque shouted for their execution, then-judiciary chief Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi said his government was determined to pursue the case of the Jewish “spies unconcerned with remarks by any foreign party,” according to UPI and Iranian press accounts.
The next Friday, the secretary of the Council of Guardians, a key religious body that oversees government decisions, told a crowd at the same mosque, “Those who think that it is possible to strike a deal on the fate of the spies are definitely mistaken.”
“The punishment for espionage is death,” Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati told the worshippers, according to the government-controlled Tehran Times. But he assured them, “The investigation is being conducted regardless of religious beliefs of the betrayers involved.”
Such statements then tapered off—in part, Jewish leaders here believe, in reaction to a conscious decision on their part to rein in a public campaign of demonstrations and press conferences challenging the Iran government. Despite this continued policy, Iranian leaders have in recent weeks resumed public statements condemning the suspects as spies, Jewish leaders say.
Kermanian, the Iranian American Jewish Federation leader, condemned Rahbarpour’s statements as “very unproductive” and “irresponsible.”
Like several other Jewish leaders, he noted that Rahbahrpour used the same interview to disclose that four Muslim student leaders had recently been sentenced to death in secret trials. The students were tried in connection with violent clashes that broke out in July between students and pro-government vigilantes. The clashes erupted after the vigilantes crushed a peaceful sit-in by the students, who were protesting the closing of a pro-reform newspaper.
Jewish leaders fear this bodes poorly for the jailed Jews. Many cite unconfirmed reports the government has determined that at least some will be executed while others will be released. Meanwhile, numerous unconfirmed reports are circulating that their trial will come soon.