Iranian Jews demand fair trial for 13 accused of spying

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THE HEAD of the Iranian judiciary says the 13 Jews under arrest for spying for Israel and the United States may be executed if convicted, while the leader of the Jewish community in Iran has demanded they receive a fair trial.

The arrest of the Iranian Jews from Shiraz and Isfahan is becoming the centrepiece of the struggle between moderates and fundamentalists in Iran. Diplomats in Tehran say the purpose of their arrest is to put obstacles in the way of improving relations between Iran and the US.

Manouchehr Elias, the leader of the 27,000-strong Jewish community in Iran, said at the weekend: "As a representative of [Iranian] Jews, I demand true justice for the suspects. If the results of the investigation prove them guilty, they should be punished. But if the opposite is true they should be released immediately." He said the Iranian Jews had no contact with Israel.

At Friday prayers in Tehran Ayatollah Mohammed Yizdi, the head of the court system, said: "The Jewish spies for Israel will be tried for treason according to Islamic law and they may be sentenced to death - not once but several times." He said their trial would begin soon. A crowd of thousands listening to his sermon shouted for "the traitors to be executed".

The 13 Jews were arrested on or about 21 March and include rabbis, religious teachers and community activists. Since Tehran radio first hinted that they would be tried for espionage a week ago, radical opponents of the Iranian President, Mohammad Khatami, have focused on the case as a means of discrediting his attempt to improve relations with the US.

Jumhuri-ye Eslami, a newspaper opposed to President Khatami, said that "Washington's support of the spies shows that the US is still the Iranian people's enemy, and this should be a lesson for all those in Iran who support a normalisation of relations with the United States."

President Khatami referred to the affair at the end of last week when he said: "Some people are using almost any method to ruin the plans of the government."

There is no official communication between Iran and the US but the Rev Jesse Jackson, who secured the release of three US servicemen from Serbia, may go to Tehran to ask Iran to drop all charges against the Jews under arrest. Mr Jackson says he has contacted the Iranian authorities and asked to visit Tehran.

n Iraq's parliament condemned Iran yesterday for launching a missile attack against an exiled Iranian opposition group inside Iraq last week. "The missile aggression launched by Iranian troops on Thursday is a serious escalation and it is part of the American-Zionist aggression against Iraq," a statement said. Iraq said Iran had fired three long-range missiles at Asharf camp used by the Iranian Mujahedin Khalq organisation on Friday.