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Iran: Defense Lawyers Wage Fierce Battle In Trial Of Jews

The trial of 13 Iranian Jews accused of spying for Israel is continuing in Iran, and so far nine defendants have confessed to some of the charges against them. But a hot battle is being waged by the defendants' lawyers over whether the confessions alone are enough to establish guilt. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports.

Prague, 22 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- As the court in Shiraz -- operating behind closed doors -- slowly works its way through the cases of the 13 men, it is difficult for outsiders to follow the details of the trial.

But patterns in the strategies of both the prosecution and defense have emerged which give a picture of a fierce legal battle being waged inside the courtroom.

Much of the battle has centered on how the accused can -- or cannot -- be proven guilty. The prosecution has relied upon the confessions of the accused to establish their guilt. But defense lawyers -- while accepting that the confessions are voluntary -- say there remains a distinct lack of physical evidence necessary to convict their clients.

Chief defense lawyer Esmail Nasseri recently described the defense team's strategy in a phone interview from Shiraz with RFE/RL's Persian Service.

"We have asked the court to present documentation that [the accused] have passed on information [to Israel]. But the court replies that the evidence is the information itself which they exchanged. [The court says] this information was either oral or in the form of documents and that the documents were immediately destroyed after they were transported or transmitted. [And the court says] it can bring forward the accused and tell them to describe by themselves the transmitted information and sign their statements and [that is the evidence]. But that means the only real evidence against the accused is the accused testifying against each other."

Until very recently, the prosecution had little to say publicly about what evidence it has against the suspects. But last week, the head of the local judiciary, Hossein-Ali Amiri, said for the first time that some defendants took photographs and collected information of military electronic installations and medical centers.

Amiri said that spies normally do not keep copies of intelligence they have sent, but security forces have seized copies of the exact material exchanged. He also claimed equipment used for espionage had been seized from the suspects.

The defense lawyers have acknowledged that some of the suspects were in contact with Israeli intelligence for more than 15 years. But they argue the suspects are religious extremists who handed over nothing which could damage Iran's security.

Nasseri told RFE/RL's Persian Service that the most the suspects can be tried for is collaboration with a foreign state. But he says that whether their cases in fact qualify as such an offense is an open question.

"We have said maybe we can call this collaboration with the Israeli government. [That would be under] Clause 508 of the Islamic penal code, which covers anyone who collaborates with an aggressor government. [But] Iran does not recognize Israel as a government. And we also have said that Iran may have differences with the Israeli government but it cannot be called an aggressor. These two governments are not at war with each other and they have not shot any bullets toward us."

One thing that all sides in the case now appear to agree upon is that any punishment will probably not include the death penalty. Local judiciary head Amiri told reporters last week that the suspects have not been charged under Islamic law with "moharebeh," or taking up arms against God and the state. But lesser charges still leave open the possibility of lengthy prison sentences.

As the trial continues behind closed doors, it has regularly spilled into public with appearances by lawyers at press conferences and transmissions of suspects' confessions on Iranian state television.

The publicized confessions have angered the defense lawyers, who say that they risk tarring the entire Iranian Jewish community with the charges brought against 13 Jewish suspects.

Nasseri told RFE/RL that the defense team has strongly objected to the court over the televised confessions.

"In regards to transmitting their confessions on national TV, we have objected vehemently to the court. And [we have] clearly said that the Jewish people are citizens of the Islamic Republic and have lived and traded amicably amongst Muslims. [These broadcasts] would cause fractures in that relationship. And [we have] also objected to the fact that if the trial is behind closed doors but the confessions are transmitted on national TV, then this means that their trial is not confidential. In that case, you have to openly prosecute them so that the public and the world would know the work of the defense lawyers, too."

International human rights organizations and several Western governments have called for the suspects to receive an open trial and for foreign observers to be allowed to attend it. But Iran has strongly rejected foreign criticism of the trial, saying it is fair and is closed only for national security reasons.

No date has been set for the conclusion of the trial and it remains uncertain how many more weeks it will run before verdicts are reached. Eight Muslims who have been charged with complicity in espionage along with the 13 Jewish suspects continue to await trial dates.