The televised “confession” by an Iranian Jew to spying for Israel was predictable, Jewish leaders maintain, but they heatedly denied Iranian claims that Hamid “Danny” Tefileen had made similar statements Monday during a four-hour trial in the southern Iranian city of Shiraz.
Meanwhile, diplomatic efforts were under way to punish Iran by denying it more than $200 million in loans from the World Bank.
Although the trial was held behind closed doors, the Jewish leaders quoted lead defense attorney Esmail Naseri as saying that Tefileen had only told the court that he had visited Israel in 1994 strictly to visit his relatives. His client, Naseri said, made no mention of any spying activities.
Tefileen was the first of 13 Jews arrested for alleged espionage in behalf of Israel and the United States to stand trial. The judge, who serves also as the prosecutor, has promised to try two defendants a week. If convicted, they face execution.
Even as the trial began this week, Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said diplomatic efforts have intensified worldwide to protest the trial. And he said Jewish organizations were “mobilizing support against a pending World Bank loan to Iran.”
Iran has requested an $86 million loan for a primary health project and a $125 million loan for a sewage project in Tehran. The U.S. delegate to the World Bank, Jan Piercy, must vote against it because of a U.S. law that requires opposition to loans to countries on its list of nations that support terrorism, according to a Treasury Department spokesman.
Sources said there appeared to be enough opposition to the loan — Western nations have 55 percent of the votes in the World Bank — to delay action on the application. The vote is set for Tuesday.
The press secretary at the Iranian Mission to the United Nations, Hossein Nosrat, said he had heard “nothing about a delay.”
“I don’t see what the connection is between the trial in Shiraz and the World Bank. We don’t see this as a political trial,” Nosrat said.
Hoenlein said Jewish groups, in protesting the trial, don’t want to get caught up in the power struggle being waged in Iran between pro-reform groups led by President Mohammad Khatami and hard-line, conservative clerics who control the courts. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has warned Iran that the future of U.S.-Iranian relations hinged on the outcome of the spy trial.
Sam Kermanian, secretary general of the Iranian-American Jewish Federation in Los Angeles, said Tefileen had traveled to Israel twice. (Tefileen told Iran radio that he has a mother, two sisters and a brother there.) And Kermanian said Tefileen’s “lawyer held a press conference [after the court session] and said that Danny had no ties to any security matters and possessed no information that would constitute sensitive information that could be transferred to Israel or anybody else.”
The fact that only government-controlled Iranian TV “was given access to the guy tells us it’s a sham,” said Hoenlein. “It was not a confession. It was an interview.”
Elahe Hicks, a representative of Human Rights Watch in New York, told The Jewish Week by phone from Tehran that Tefileen’s television appearance “wasn’t the type of confession we’re used to. It was very casual and informal, with a reporter asking questions. And we don’t know when it [was taped] or where.”
Hicks said she was standing outside the courthouse with the defendants’ families and reporters when the trial ended at 1:45 p.m. and that there was no time for the interview after the court adjourned.
“They rushed them to the car,” she said, referring to Tefileen and three other defendants who were in the court. Tefileen’s younger brother, Omid, who is one of the 13 arrested, also waited outside the courthouse. He is one of three defendants who are free on bail.
In the televised interview, Tefileen was seated next to an unidentified television reporter who held a microphone and asked him questions. Tefileen, wearing a prison uniform decorated with drawings of the scales of justice, appeared calm.
“I am guilty,” he said. “I accept the charges against me. I spied for Israel,” he said. “The government of Israel uses the religious beliefs of Jews worldwide — that Israel is our promised land — to get people to spy for them.
“I have betrayed Iran and trampled on the trust that has been placed in me by the government and the people,” he said. “I am full of remorse. I now realize that Iran is our home because we live here.”
The head of the Persian-language service of Israel Radio said it was clear the “confession” had been extracted under force. But speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Tefileen denied he had been coerced and said, “I am well in every respect.”
In the broadcast, Tefileen said also that Iranian Muslims had provided the information he passed along to Israel. Eight Iranian Muslims have been charged in connection with the case, but authorities said they would be tried later.
Kermanian said there are several questions about the eight.
“Nobody knows who they are or if they even exist,” he said. “I have no doubt in my mind that Iranian [authorities] will invent eight people. It’s not hard to get them from the tens of thousands being held [in Iranian prisons].”
Iran had to fabricate the existence of the eight, Kermanian said, because Tefileen, a 28-year-old shoe salesman from Isfahan, “had no access to sensitive information.”
The Shiraz judiciary chief, Hossein Ali Amiri, told reporters after the court session that Tefileen, whom Iranian authorities had been saying was their prime suspect, had confessed to passing classified information to Israel’s intelligence agency, the Mossad.
And he said Tefileen said he had been trained in Israel and was on the Mossad payroll. “Tefileen said they were acting as a team, not individually,” Amiri told reporters.
Amiri said their actions were based on economic considerations and for the love of Israel. He said Tefileen had asked for a pardon.
In a statement, the Israeli Foreign Ministry said the Iranian “attempt to present these Jews as spies is ludicrous and barbaric. They are innocent and should be released immediately.”
An Israeli official told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that the arrest of the 13 was motivated by anti-Semitism. “ There is not a bit of truth to it. There is no Mossad connection, no espionage. These people were imprisoned just because they are Jews.”
The trial sparked three demonstrations here in front of the UN Iranian Mission on Third Avenue, including one Wednesday at which 10 rabbis were arrested. Among them was Rabbi Avi Weiss of Riverdale, national president of the Coalition for Jewish Concerns/Amcha.
“You get arrested only when you feel a sense of anguish,” he explained. “It’s a crying-out in the streets. It’s a way of sounding the alarm and sending a message to my co-religionists in Iran that the Torah is not the only book that talks about mercy and justice. The Koran does, too.”
Hicks said that before the trial began, she met with the judge, Sedeq Nourani, and asked that he “publicize the charges and open [the proceedings] to the public or a representative of the Jewish community, religious leaders, the diplomatic community, the press or any human rights organization.”
“The judge talked about how he would take all measure to have a fair trial based on Islamic law and Iranian law,” she said.
In fact, in the weeks leading up to the trial, Iranian authorities had promised that the proceedings would be open to the public and that the defendants would be able to select their own attorneys. Hicks said the judge told her that he had appointed the defense attorneys only after the defendants and the Jewish community declined to hire any. But Hoenlein insisted that Iranian authorities prevented the defendants from retaining their own counsel.
Nosrat, the Iranian spokesman in New York, said the judge closed the proceedings “for security reasons” due to the nature of the charges.