Closed-door spy trial of Iranian Jews jeopardises reforms

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Thirteen Iranian Jews accused of spying for the US and Israel go on trial today behind closed doors.

Iran's Jewish community has been nervously awaiting the trial and reformist supporters of President Mohammad Khatami are equally concerned: anything short of a proper trial could spell the end of international support for the reform movement, which has made the rule of law an ideological cornerstone. The hearing is being held at a critical time in the struggle between Mr Khatami's pro-reform supporters and conservative Islamic hardliners.

If convicted, the suspects could get long prison terms or the death sentence. In a similar case three years ago, two Jews were executed.

The judiciary is under conservative influence, but Judge Sadegh Nourani said the suspects would have access to lawyers throughout the trial. The suspects and their lawyers want more time to prepare and a postponement is expected. The US, which with Israel has rejected the spying charges as baseless, said the trial and its outcome could affect the Iran-US rapprochement that has been under way since Mr Khatami's May 1997 election. Israel, France, Germany, the UN and Amnesty International have condemned the arrests or called for a free and fair trial.

The trial, in Shiraz, the capital of Fars province, is being held in camera for national-security reasons, Tehran radio said. Mr Khatami has promised a fair hearing and his more ardent supporters look forward to seeing him compelled to keep his word.

At its height, Iran's Jewish community numbered 100,000; numbers now have dwindled to about 25,000.

Rajab-Ali Mazroui, an MP and close associate of Mr Khatami, was in stable condition after a car accident near Tehran, the official news agency said.