Sat, 03 Jun 2000

Justice rather than Jews on trial in Iran

By Paul Taylor

LONDON (Reuters): To most international observers, the trial of 13 Iranian Jews on charges of spying for Israel has been more of an indictment of Iran's justice system than of the accused.

With a verdict expected within two weeks, few if any lawyers, human rights activists or Western government analysts following the case have been convinced either by televised confessions broadcast during the closed-door trial, or by the judiciary's selective leaking of other evidence.

Yet to the dismay of Israeli officials, most European Union governments seem unlikely to downgrade relations with Iran if the defendants receive even lengthy prison terms, provided no one is sentenced to death, diplomats say.

"Even if some get long jail sentences, there is bound to be an appeal and an opportunity for clemency, so I expect the European attitude will be to criticize the procedure but carry on more or less with 'business as usual'," one EU diplomat said.

British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, pursuing a "critical engagement" with states once seen as pariahs, is almost certain to go ahead with a delayed July 4-5 visit unless the Shiraz revolutionary court passes a death sentence, aides say.

Iranian justice officials appear to have ruled out the death penalty for the Jewish defendants.

European Union governments believed from the outset that the charges were trumped up by hardliners who control the judiciary, in their power struggle with reformist President Mohammad Khatami, officials in several EU capitals said.

The lowly social positions of the suspects -- shopkeepers, a kosher butcher, Hebrew teachers and a rabbi -- made the espionage accusations implausible, and Iranian ministers offered foreign interlocutors no evidence to support the charges.

But EU states differed over whether to send diplomats to the court, at the risk of lending credence to the proceedings, or steering clear of the trial. Only the Netherlands sent an envoy, who ended up standing outside the courthouse with reporters.

"Nothing that has occurred in Shiraz has changed our minds in the slightest," a senior European diplomat said. "On the contrary, the conduct of the trial only underscored our concerns about the lack of a transparent due process of law."

Yet while the United States has denounced a "show trial" and cited it to oppose World Bank loans to Iran, EU states, except for France, have largely confined themselves to calls for a fair and open hearing meeting international legal standards.

France has western Europe's largest Jewish community. Prime Minister Lionel Jospin last year branded the charges "totally fabricated". Three of his predecessors have signed a petition accusing Iran of failing to respect fundamental rules of law.

Judith Yaphe, a Middle East expert at the U.S. National Defense University, said Iran-watchers in Washington believed Islamic hardliners were using the case to obstruct Khatami's rapprochement with the West.

But in a U.S. presidential election year, there was never a prospect of a U.S.-Iranian opening, and the trial had merely added to the grounds for a standstill, she told Reuters.

Leaders of the U.S. Jewish community, the world's largest, have charged that the trial was motivated by anti-Semitism.

While not all observers take Israel denials on trust, most international attention has focused on what are seen as flaws in Iranian justice rather than the question of the guilt or innocence of the accused.

"This has been like the Stalin-era trials in the Soviet Union. It was not a trial but a political show," said Abdolkarim Lahidji, a Paris-based Iranian lawyer who is vice-president of the International Federation of Human Rights Leagues.

Concerns raised by Western officials and watchdogs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are:

* the suspects were held in isolation without access to either lawyers or relatives for more than a year;

* all those who "confessed" did so under unknown circumstances before they had access to lawyers or relatives;

* the trial has been held in secret despite pledges which some European governments and South Africa say they received that it would be open;

* in the Iranian legal system, the prosecutor is also the sole judge -- creating what many observers see as a conflict of interest that is a fundamental flaw;

* state television broadcast during the trial "confessions" by several of the accused made in the absence of their lawyers. It has not broadcast any of the defense case;

* while reporters, diplomats and human rights observers have been barred from the courtroom, the prosecution has given selective briefings and interviews to set out the accusations against the accused.

Some of those allegations, such as a claim that the accused were planning to contaminate Shiraz's drinking water, seem to be drawn from the classics of anti-Semitic literature.

Critics say all the major Iranian political trials since the 1979 Islamic revolution have been based on confessions and not evidence.

Given evidence of widespread torture documented by UN human rights investigator Maurice Copithorne, such admissions are unlikely to be regarded as credible outside Iran.