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Iran Starts Trial for 13 Jews

April 13, 2000

SHIRAZ, Iran (AP) _ The closed-door trial of 13 Jews charged with spying for the United States and Israel began in Iran today, in a case that could determine the future of Tehran’s relations with the United States and the West.

Most of the defendants, who include merchants, religious teachers, civil servants and a student, were secretly whisked into the courthouse through a rear entrance.

``The trial has officially started,″ Hossein Ali Amiri, the provincial judiciary chief told The Associated Press.

The trial has drawn Western diplomats, international journalists and a human rights activist to the courthouse in this southern Iranian city.

But Iranian authorities have said the trial would be closed to the public, dashing hopes it can be monitored to ensure it is free and fair.

The Shiraz Revolutionary Court has no jury. The judge leads the investigation, prosecutes and hands down the sentence and verdict. Two Jews were executed in a similar case three years ago.

A statement issued Wednesday by the Fars province justice department said only those who have ``legal involvement″ would be allowed to attend the trial because of ``the special circumstances of the case and the possibility of interference in national security.″

Rahmat Farzin, pushing his ailing wife in a wheelchair, traveled 550 miles to support his 27-year-old son Ramin, who is among the defendants arrested more than a year ago.

``We live in Tehran, and every time we come here it takes us a whole day by bus. We have little money, and it’s hard for us financially, too,″ Rahmat Farzin said Wednesday.

He said they were allowed only a three-minute visit with their son Tuesday, finding him in good health but dispirited.

``Spies are usually well-off. My son has no money at all, so how can he be a spy?″ Farzin asked.

Navid Balazadeh, one of three defendants freed on bail in February, stood outside the courthouse before the trial began.

``I have to appear in court today, but I don’t have a lawyer,″ said Balazadeh, 18. ``I haven’t done anything, so why should I need a lawyer?″

Elahe Sharifpour-Hicks, a New York-based researcher for Human Rights Watch, said she had spoken to defense lawyers who said they were given only five days to look at transcripts and meet with the defendants.

``I’ve spoken to several of the lawyers, and all have said they are unprepared for a good defense,″ she said.

The United States has said that the procedures and outcome of the trial could affect a growing rapprochement between the two countries. Several European countries and the United Nations have either condemned the arrests or called for a fair trial.

The trial opens amid a serious power struggle between anti-American Islamic hard-liners and President Mohammad Khatami’s reformist wing, which favors better ties with the United States. The judiciary is controlled by the hard-liners.

Iran maintains religion has no bearing in the proceeding and notes that eight Muslims also have been arrested in the case.

At its height, Iran’s Jewish community numbered about 100,000 and was still around 80,000 before Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution. The population has dwindled to about 25,000.

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