Show Trial in Shiraz
TEHRAN, Iran, May 4, 2000 (The Washington Post) - THE TELEVISED "confession" from the first of 13 Iranian Jewish suspects to go on trial in Shiraz for espionage, followed by news of two more confessions behind closed doors, deepens concerns about whether this "trial" deserves the name. It also feeds already well-founded suspicions that the supposed legal proceeding is merely a move in the intense maneuvering between clerical hard-liners and moderate reformers at yet another crucial point in their struggle for control. This time the prize is Friday's runoff parliamentary elections to determine whether the allies of President Mohammed Khatemi retain what the first round of voting suggested would be a decisive majority.
While some hard-line efforts to head off this result have been unpleasantly direct--arrests, press crackdowns, invalidation of election results--the trial for espionage has the potential to undermine Mr. Khatemi more subtly. A trial that falls flagrantly short of international human rights norms, as this one does, could scotch the president's efforts to gain credibility for Iran internationally. The charges themselves could stoke--indeed, seem calibrated to stoke--crude populist anti-Israel sentiment.
The specifics of the broadcast by Hamid Tefileen, a 30-year-old shoe salesman, offer chilling corroboration of the second goal--not to mention grim implications for the probable fate of the other 12. Asked by the interviewer on conservative-controlled state TV whether he had worked alone, Mr. Tefileen responded, "No, we were working in a network." He also said Israel "plays on the religious beliefs" of Jews to make them think they owe fealty to Israel, raising familiar and ugly historical echoes about Jewish dual loyalties. Other conservative newspapers later hinted that the aim of the spy "network" was to collect information on a Russian-Iranian nuclear power plant.
Israel's government has called the charges "ludicrous and barbaric," and there are other reasons to withhold judgment on the validity of the "confessions." The trial remains closed to outside observers. Defense lawyers for the 13 have complained that no evidence aside from the confessions has been offered in court; nor is anything known about pressures that may have been brought to bear during the year they were held without lawyers. Iranian authorities had previously claimed four of the 13 had confessed to espionage, leading to denials by their defense lawyers that any such confessions had taken place. Whatever domestic politics this kind of action reflects, it remains on its face an outrageous violation of the defendants' rights, worthy of the strongest continued international condemnation.