Israel, US Condemn Guilty Verdict of Iranian Jews

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

Jerusalem ( - Israel and the United States strongly condemned the conviction and sentencing of 10 Iranian Jews found guilty of spying for Israel over the weekend, and both nations called on Iran to overturn to decision and release them.

Iranian affairs specialists predicted the possibility of an exodus of Iran's Jewish community in the aftermath of the affair.

Ten out of 13 Iranian Jewish prisoners, arrested more than a year ago, were found guilty of being associated with an alleged Israeli spy ring in Iran. They were sentenced to between four and 13 years in Iranian prison by the military court in Shiraz, which tried them without a jury before a judge who also served as prosecutor.

The Israeli cabinet unanimously adopted a resolution on Sunday, put forward by Prime Minister Ehud Barak, condemning the verdict "against innocent Jews, whose only sin is their Jewish origin as they have been branded [with this] so-called mark of disgrace."

"This was not a just trial but a farcical procedure," a statement read to the foreign press by Cabinet Secretary Yitzhak Herzog said. "Israel will not rest until it will have exhausted every avenue to reduce the penalties and insure the release of the prisoners."

Two Muslims also accused in the case were given lighter sentences of two years. Another two Muslims, and the remaining three Jews, were acquitted.

Eight of the Jewish defendants had pleaded guilty to the charges against them, in what western observers and governments said were "forced confessions.". Four pleaded innocent, while one admitted gathering information but said he had never passed it on.

Defense attorney Email Naseri said he was "relieved that there were no death sentences." He urged calm, saying that none of the verdicts and sentences were final, but could all be overturned in appeals.

Israel had denied any connection with the accused and then remained silent fearing any interference on its part might have a negative effect on the outcome. That silence was broken after the verdicts were announced.

"Israel as the state of the Jewish people will spare no effort to secure the freedom of our innocent Jewish brothers," Barak's cabinet affirmed. "Israel calls upon the entire free world, its people and governments to join in this effort."

In a highly unusual move, the foreign ministry broke the Jewish Sabbath by faxing a government response to foreign correspondents.

Calling the verdicts harsh and against "natural justice," it said that "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."

President Clinton said he was "deeply disturbed" by the verdicts.

In a statement Clinton said the U.S. called on the government of Iran "to remedy the failings of these procedures and overturn these unjust sentences." He added that the trials had been "rightly criticized around the world for their failure to accord due process of law to the defendants."

In Jerusalem, Iranian Affairs expert Menashe Amir characterized the episode as "an unjust trial of a minority" who had always been under the attack "of the regime who invites the destruction of Israel and is very much against Zionism."

Although Iran claims to protect the Jews, Amir said, they are "suppressed" even more than all the other religious minorities are. Among the Jews convicted were Hebrew teachers and Amir said the trials were aimed at stopping the spread of their religion and tradition.

"I have no doubt that international pressure and human rights organizations can demand Iran to do justice and have a fair trial," Amir said of the appeals process, which he estimated would be "much less harsh."

The trial was widely seen as a battle between President Mohammed Khatami's reformists, who are cautiously open to resuming ties with the West - although not with Israel - and the "hard-liners," who shun such moves.

"Those who have planned this kind of persecution know that the Jewish lobby [would come out strongly against it] and it would damage the government of Khatami," Amir said. "That is exactly what the fundamentalists are seeking."

The Clinton administration has been actively probing the prospects of renewal of ties with Iran, severed more than two decades ago. Washington has been promoting people-to-people initiatives and loosening some sanctions but without gaining reciprocal moves from Tehran.

Iran criticized Western condemnation of the verdicts, saying that it constituted interference in Iran's internal affairs.

Exodus fears

Meanwhile, Iranian Jewish leaders are said to fear an exodus of the 6,000-strong Jewish community of Shiraz, in southern Iran.

Maurice Motamed, the only Jewish representative in Iran's 290-seat parliament said Sunday that the "issue of emigration began when this case began."

"I'm afraid this exodus will intensify with the heavy verdicts," Motamed added.
Prior to the 1979 Islamic Revolution there were some 80,000 Jews in Iran. Still the largest Jewish population in the Middle East outside of Israel, the community has today shrunk to about 25,000.

During the so-called television confessions of two of the defendants, Jewish children in schools and Jewish shopkeepers had been attacked by members of the public, Amir said.

He maintained that the "real reason" Jews were being persecuted in Shiraz was to stop them from teaching Hebrew and practicing their Jewish tradition. Hebrew, the original language of the Bible, is also the official language of Iran's primary enemy.

While not commenting directly on the possibility of the Jews of Shiraz leaving the country, Amir said that the Jewish community is "very concerned."

"Many feel it's maybe not their place any more," he said.