As three more of the 13 Iranian Jews charged with spying for Israel pleaded guilty Monday — bringing to six the number who have confessed to date — Jewish leaders and human rights groups were discounting the confessions.
“It’s ludicrous to say that they are part of an espionage spy ring,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
He said he knew before the trial began that “everyone was going to plead guilty, but they are not pleading to the same things. We have said from the start that four would plead guilty to espionage and the rest to lesser charges of being members of the group.”
But on Wednesday, as a sixth defendant pleaded guilty to espionage, his younger brother denied similar charges against him.
Hoenlein noted that each of the first five who appeared in court and confessed “spoke in the context of asking for a pardon. So you know the purpose of the confessions was because they were promised leniency. And all of the human rights activists from Europe are saying that the confessions fool no one. Everybody understands that they were made under duress after a year in prison and that they are not speaking as free people.”
Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate adopted a resolution last week introduced by New York Sen. Charles Schumer condemning the unjust arrests and trial.
“I rise today to denounce — in the strongest terms possible — the sham trial of 13 Jews in Iran accused of espionage,” Schumer said. “Leaders in Teheran must know that the treatment of Jews on trial will go far in determining the nature of Iran’s relations with the U.S., and its standing in the community of nations.”
“This mockery of truth and justice reached new lows this week,” he continued. “After a year in prison — indeed, no contact with family or friends, no contact with even a lawyer — three of these men were dragged from the darkness of one of Iran’s harshest prisons and stuck in front of cameras to publicly ‘confess’ to their charges. … They should be released immediately.”
On Monday, defendant Nasser Levihaim, 50, told the judge — who serves also as the prosecutor — that he was the No. 2 man in the spy ring, according to the provincial judiciary chief who attended the closed-door proceedings, Hossein Ali Amiri.
Levihaim’s lawyer, Esmail Naseri, confirmed his client’s confession and said he was motivated by ideological reasons and a “love for the Promised Land. … He said he held a position of authority and was not responsible for gathering information himself.”
The second defendant Monday, Ramin Farzam, a 27-year-old store clerk, said he was paid to spy for Israel but was caught before he could pass along any information.
Also attending the session was Shahrokh Paknahan, 30, who confessed last week in court and gave an interview to Iranian TV saying it had been his job to “recruit new agents to spy for Israel and collect information for sabotage.”
Appearing unshaven and in prison uniform, he also said that he had collected information during the Iran-Iraq war from 1980-88 when he was completing his military service.
But Hoenlein said the “secret activities” being confessed to are absurd. He said Paknahan admitted he “collected information on hospitals, bridges, movie theaters, religious and economic centers in Iran and gave it to Israel. Who cares about movie theaters and hospitals? Of what importance could that be to Israeli intelligence?
And what are they going to do with information about bridges? Israel was not coming to bomb bridges. This is just silly.”
He pointed out also that Paknahan, a Hebrew teacher, claimed he transmitted the secret information he obtained “through a fax and other modern communication devices. But this guy doesn’t even have a telephone!”
The first defendant to plead guilty, Dani Tefilin, was not in court Monday. A fifth defendant, Ramin Nematizadeh, a store clerk, also confessed in court, according to his lawyer.
Naseri, the defendants’ lawyer, told reporters that he will argue that the suspects never gave Israel any secret information and in fact never had access to any.
“We saw the evidence for the first time today, but we cannot comment on it because it involves state secrets,” he said.
If convicted, the men face the death penalty. Two Jews were hanged on similar charges three years ago.
The trial is expected to last several weeks and Hoenlein said there is increasing concern for the safety of the 25,000 Jews who remain in Iran.
The Web site Newsroom, www.newsroom.org, which provides news about religious affairs worldwide, reported that members of the Jewish community is frightened and sad about the trial and that some Jews will flee the country if there is a guilty verdict.