Tears and rage at 'vile' conviction of Iranian Jews on spying charges

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The Independent Online

Ten of the 13 Iranian Jews accused of spying for Israel were yesterday convicted and sentenced to jail - their only "crime" to be helpless pawns in the power struggle between Iran's reformers and hardliners.

Ten of the 13 Iranian Jews accused of spying for Israel were yesterday convicted and sentenced to jail - their only "crime" to be helpless pawns in the power struggle between Iran's reformers and hardliners.

Danny Tefileen's sister fainted when the verdict was announced outside the courtroom in the southern city of Shiraz, where hearings had been held.

Her brother, a shoe salesman, was sentenced to 13 years in prison. According to the court, he was the ringleader and organised wild parties to lure Muslim informants.

"I want him to be released now, I want him to come home," cried the mother of Ramin Namatizadeh. Her son, a conscripted soldier, was sentenced to four years in jail for passing on secret information about his barracks.

"All I do is cry," said Shamseh Kahkan. Her son, Farhad Saleh, was sentenced to eight years' imprisonment.

Ahser Zadhmer, a language professor, was sentenced to 13 years; Nasser Levihaim, 11 years; Ramin Farzam, 10 years; Javid Bent-Yacoub, nine years. Shahrokh Paknahad, eight years; Faramarz Kashi, five years. The sentences also included lashes and fines.

Hearings were closed to the press and international observers for reasons of "national security" - yet "confessions" by two of the accused were broadcast on television, against their lawyers' wishes.

Proper details of the "confessions" made by nine of the accused men have never been made public. All that was shown were abject apologies and pleas for mercy.

The prosecution says they admitted passing on military secrets and conspiring to poison the Shiraz water supply. But defence lawyers claim their clients did not understand what they were confessing to and the information they admitted passing to Israel was not secret.

The defence also says it proved the confessions were inconsistent with each other under cross-examination - but the judiciary chief, Hossein Amiri, announced that the accused men had corroborated each other's stories before the session even finished.

Two Muslims were also convicted in connection with the spying charges; details of their sentences were not released. Two other Muslims and three Jews were acquitted

The verdict was condemned around the world. Lord Janner, vice-president of the World Jewish Congress, called it "vile and uncivilised".

The Israeli government, which has denied from the start that the men ever spied for it, issued a statement saying: "Iran cannot be accepted as a member of the international community as long as Jewish prisoners are rotting away in prison when they have done no wrong." The US has said the outcome could affect its relations with Iran.

But such fury is playing into the hands of Iran's hardliners: everybody here knows that the trial is really about the power struggle between them and reformist President Mohamed Khatami.

Iran's courts are in the pocket of the hardliners: by jailing the Jews and thus whipping up international condemnation, they aim to ruin his attempts to mend fences with the West.

Esmail Nasseri, spokesman for the defence lawyers, said yesterday he was relieved none of the men had been sentenced to death. Several leading hardliners had called for them to be executed. Mr Nasseri said the men would appeal.

Iranian authorities have insisted the men's religion had nothing to do with the case, but Iran's Jews, one of the oldest religious minorities in the world, have been fleeing the country in droves ever since the men were arrested.

Even more are expected to leave now they have been convicted. Some 25,000 remain, still the largest Jewish community in the Middle East outside Israel. But many fear that, soon, there will be none left.

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