International Pressure Could Help Iranian Jews

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:08 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - The trial of 13 Iranian Jews accused of spying for Israel resumes Monday, with experts saying international pressure still may influence the outcome despite the "confessions" of three of the defendants.

The trial is widely seen as a struggle between reformist forces of President Mohammed Khatami, which are open to improving relations with the West, and hard-line officials who are opposed any dialogue.

"If you want to earn international respect, the way to begin is by respecting the dignity of your own citizens," said U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who has encouraged the resumption of dialogue with Iran.

"Governments from around the world are right in telling officials in Iran that what happens in the trials of the 13 Jews will have repercussions everywhere," Albright told members of the American Jewish Committee at their annual dinner.

Menashe Amir, Iranian affairs expert in Jerusalem, said there was "no doubt international pressure [has been] very fruitful."

Amir told he was "confident this effort [is] very helpful." Western and even Arab governments have encouraged Iran to release the 13 or at least give them an open and fair trial.

The trial reconvened for its first full day of hearing in a closed-door session at the revolutionary court in Shiraz last Monday. Western observers had expressed their doubts about a fair trial in the military tribunal - controlled by "hardliners" - in which the judge also acts as prosecutor.

Within hours of the opening of the trial, it was announced than Hamid "Dani" Tefilin, a shoe salesman, had confessed to spying for Israel and to having been paid by Israel's Mossad intelligence service.

Two others, Shahrokh Paknahad, 30, a religion teacher, and Ramin Nematizadeh, 27, a shop clerk, allegedly confessed to spying on Wednesday.

However, despite Tefilin's televised confession and his statements that he was not coerced to confess, Western observers doubt the validity of the confessions.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive director of the Conference of Major American Jewish Organizations, told he was not surprised by the confessions because he had been "told well in advance that this would happen."

This kind of confession is "commonplace" in the Iranian justice system, Hoenlein said. It was made in prison without any legal representation, and when one of the defendants, who confessed to espionage, was asked if he had ever had access to state archives or state or military secrets, he said "no."

"It's meaningless, except that it's used," Hoenlein said.

From the way the three accused confessed and the tone of their voices, Amir said, it was clear they were "taught what to say and how to say it."

Amir, who emigrated from Iran 40 years ago, said Iranians have had a "very long and bad experience of so-called TV confessions," dating from the 1979 Iranian revolution. The authorities have "so many ways of forcing prisoners [to confess]."

He said he could not be certain if the defense lawyers were "really trying to protect and defend" their clients or were acting as agents of the state. Lawyers in Iran are afraid for their career and future, he said.

Some of the defense lawyers were appointed by the court while others were chosen by the families. The attorneys, too, have expressed doubts about their clients' confessions and have said that they have seen no evidence against the defendants.

President Clinton said in a television interview that he was "concerned" about the outcome of the trial but that Israel had assured him that the accused were not Israeli spies.

The 13, arrested more than a year ago, were initially accused of spying for Israel and the U.S. Both countries vigorously denied the charges. Eventually the accusation concerning the U.S. was dropped.

Israel's foreign ministry, which has shied away from comment on the Jews except to deny any Israeli involvement with them, this week decried the "false charges" and "pseudo confessions" as "repugnant and contemptible."

"The entire trial ... is reminiscent of staged trials that characterized the dark periods of modern history," a ministry statement said.

Israeli ministers and religious leaders participated in a prayer service for the 13 on Thursday at the Western Wall of the ancient Temple, Judaism's holiest site.

Some 600 Jews originally from Iran, including relatives of those on trial, joined other Israelis participating in the vigil.