Iranian Jews Get Temporary Reprieve

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:07 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - 13 Iranian Jews got a temporary reprieve when Iranian leaders did not formally charge them with espionage yesterday as they had said they would.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive director of the Conference of Major American Jewish Organizations, confirmed to that no charges had been brought against the Iranian Jews and that the Iranian judiciary "didn't set a definite date" for doing so.

Referring to the recent replacement of Iran's judiciary head, Hoenlein said, "We don't know what the driving force is at this time." Iran is experiencing an internal struggle between hard line Islamic forces and the reform-minded President Mohammed Khatami.

Earlier in the week, it had been reported that Iran planned to start judicial proceedings against the 13 on charges of spying for Israel and the US. Both countries have denied the accusations.

Calling the arrests "unacceptable," the US State Department called on the government of Iran "to uphold its stated commitment to protect the rights of all religious and ethnic minorities by releasing these individuals and ensuring that no harm comes to them. To date, none of (those arrested) has been granted access to counsel."

Iran further accused the US of meddling in its internal affairs, which it said was against "international norms." The Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported that an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman said anyone accused of espionage would "enjoy full justice" regardless of his religion.

Speaking from New York, Hoenlein explained that since 1979, the suspects are not entitled to a lawyer or even an open trial. Since then, Iran has executed 17 Jews on charges of spying, two of them in 1997.

Further, Hoenlein said the judge who investigates the case is the same one that judges at the trial and therefore he has the authority to charge and sentence at the same hearing.

International pressure on Iran to release the Jews unharmed has come from across the spectrum. Germany, France, Russia, China, Japan, the Vatican and other Moslem countries have all called for the release of the Jews.

Hoenlein said the investigation could still clear the Jews. One way out for the Iranians would be to simply declare that there is not enough evidence to bring charges. But Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Aviv Shir-On told that "so far there is no dramatic change in the situation."

During their seven months of imprisonment, two concessions were won for the Iranian Jews. They have been allowed to have visits from their family members and to purchase Jewish kosher food.

The 13 were arrested at the end of March just before the Jewish holiday of Passover in the southern Iranian towns of Shiran and Isfahan on charges of spying for the "Zionist regime" and "world arrogance" referring to Israel and the US.

Both countries flatly denied that the Jews had ever worked for them. Those arrested include a rabbi, a ritual butcher, several teachers and a 16-year-old youth.