Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

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28 Nissan 5760 - May 3, 2000 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Israel Denies any Link to Iran 13

by Mordecai Plaut

"We don't have any connection with any of those who stand trial now in Iran," said an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman on Monday in Israel in response to reports that one of the jailed Iranian Jews had confessed to being a spy for Israel. "We don't have anything new to say from what we have said in the past."

In a broadcast on state television Monday evening, Dani Tefilin confessed that he spied for Israel. "I have been accused of espionage for Israel. I do accept this charge. I have been spying for Israel. In my trip to Israel in 1994, I was trained for my activity in Iran," Dani Tefilin told the television interviewer.

Earlier, a senior judicial official said Tefilin had confessed to passing sensitive military secrets to Israel's spy agency, Mossad. "His case is finished," said Hossein Ali Amiri, the provincial judiciary chief. Amiri said Tefilin had asked the court for clemency. He did not know when a verdict was expected, but he said the trial should be over within weeks. He said that three others also confessed. In explaining the arrests a year ago, the Iranian authorities said that those detained had spied for Israel and the United States. In yesterday's proceedings only Israel was mentioned.

Tefilin's court-appointed lawyer, Shirzad Rahmani, said the confession is not enough to convict. He said that under Iran's law, the state has to prove its case with evidence, and it must prove specifically that information damaging to Iran and beneficial to Israel was actually exchanged. If not, "there can be no charge of espionage," Rahmani said.

In this and all Iranian court cases, the judge acts as investigator, prosecutor and jury. Such a situation raises concern about the fairness of the proceedings and it was not clear if the limitations of Iranian law noted by Rahmani would be observed.

Tefilin was the first of the suspects to be arrested more than a year ago. His brother, Omid Tefilin, also is among those charged though he was released on bail a few months ago.

On Monday Navid Balazadeh, one of those freed on bail in February, stood outside the courtroom waiting to be called in. "The charges of espionage against me are completely false," Balazadeh said. "We have been treated well, and I trust the judge to be fair."

Observers said it was too early to determine whether Tefilin will bear the full weight of the case alone, or if his confession will be used to punish others as well.

No foreign observers were allowed to monitor the court proceedings, though the defendants' families and other members of Iran's Jewish community, as well as Western diplomats and foreign journalists, were in attendance outside the courthouse in Shiraz, 550 miles (880 km.) south of Teheran.

Israel has steadily denied that any of those accused worked for it, and the confession was seen as the result of pressure and possibly promises from Iranian authorities.

The case has aroused international interest. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has said the case is "of strong concern" to her, and has mentioned it on several occasions. Various diplomats and independent human rights groups including U.N. Secretary General Kofi Anan have focused interest on the case. French authorities have raised the issue in meetings with Iranian leaders.

Convictions and heavy sentences in the spy case could provoke an international backlash. Iranians convicted of spying usually receive long prison terms, but they can be executed. Two Jews were executed three years ago.

The case has also been caught in the middle of a conflict between the reformers led by Iranian president Mohammed Khatami and the Islamic hard-liners which has heightened in recent weeks. The reformers won a sweeping victory in recent elections, apparently winning 29 of 30 contested seats. However the hard-liners must publish the official results and so far they have refused to do so. They recently ordered a third recount of the votes.

The Iranian judiciary, which is controlled by hard-liners, closed 16 pro-democracy newspapers and arrested six reformist activists in the past two weeks, after the elections.

Some observers fear that the fate of the Jews may depend on who has the upper hand in those broader struggles.

President Mohammed Khatami said that he is worried by the deteriorating domestic situation and fears an eruption of violence. Last July there were violent riots and there have been reports that various groups, both conservative and reform oriented, have made preparations for new clashes.

Iran maintains religion has no bearing on the case and notes that eight Muslims also have been arrested. It has rejected foreign interest in the case, saying that it is an internal issue.

The next session in the case was scheduled for Wednesday.

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