Iran Jews speak out for first time

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NEW YORK — Implicitly rebutting several senior government authorities, the Central Jewish Committee of Iran has publicly asserted for the first time that 13 Iranian Jews currently imprisoned on suspicion of spying are innocent.

The committee, which serves as the umbrella group for Iran's 25,000 Jews, also announced it was prepared to raise money for attorneys to defend the imprisoned Jews.

The Jewish council's assertions, made in a Rosh Hashanah letter to the Jewish community in mid-September, were obtained and translated by the Jewish Week.

On Yom Kippur yet another senior judicial official reaffirmed the jailed Jews' guilt, though they have yet to be tried. And according to Iranian Jewish community leaders in the United States, kosher meals, which were earlier obtained for the 13 after a long effort, have been curtailed.

Most of the 13 are known as religious leaders and activists in Isfahan and Shiraz, where they are jailed. The United States and Israel have denied using any of them as spies.

The government promised in writing in July to grant the jailed Jews "a fair trial with all assurances linked to a correct legal proceeding." But the 13, who have been jailed since March, have yet to see any attorneys.

In their statement the Jewish council leaders asserted their right to such counsel, and to a public trial.

"We request that the authorities, and especially the judge, allow them to defend themselves," the council wrote, adding that "those being held have civil rights which they can use to defend themselves in public court — for example the right to an attorney."

In a clear embrace of those jailed, the committee described many of them as "our religious teachers" and said, "most of them are well known in the Jewish community.

"The fact of the matter is that, with their minimum pay, [they] could have found other means of supporting themselves in other parts of the world."

Instead, the committee noted, "they have stayed. They are living in the most simple way. Spying requires instruments which these individuals, whom we well know, did not have for carrying out such a task."

The council's assertions were seen as striking for a communal leadership whose position under Iran's Islamic regime is delicate.

Privately, some working on behalf of the jailed Jews have compared the council's role to that of a Judenrat, the Jewish groups utilized by the Nazis in some east European ghettos to implement their policies.

But Sam Kermanian, secretary-general of the Los Angeles-based Iranian American Jewish Federation, said that given the community's circumstances, "I think this letter was daring on their part."

Indeed, the letter at one point refers to deep rifts the case of the 13 Jews has provoked within the community's own ranks.

In some sections, the letter could be read on different levels. Several passages emphasize the community's loyalty to Iran. Others condemn "Zionists and other enemies of the nation," and the "imperialistic media, which spreads news that in Iran anti-Semitism is prevalent."