Jailed Iranian Jews cannot chose lawyers

Regardless, the judge is insisting the prisoners take court-appointed attorneys.

"This is more than a Catch-22 situation. It is a violation of the most basic legal and human rights," said Ronald Lauder, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which has been advocating on behalf of the 13 since last summer.

Three of the 13 were released on bail in February and were able to sign the documents enabling them to choose their lawyers, but the other 10 remain in jail in the southern city of Shiraz. All could face the death penalty if convicted at next month's trial.

Both the United States and Israel have denied the 13 spied for them.

Several weeks ago, the families were notified of the trial date and told to find attorneys.

Some did not select lawyers right away because they had been informed by government officials that they did not need them, and they feared that hiring an attorney would appear to be an admission of guilt, said Pooya Dayanim, a spokesman for the Los Angeles-based Council of Iranian American Organizations.

In addition, Dayanim said, few Iranian lawyers were willing to take the case because most Iranians believe the defendants are guilty.

Even before learning of the judge's decision regarding the retainers, American advocates for the 13 were urging President Clinton not to lift an embargo on Iranian pistachios and carpets, a move he was expected to announce this week as a way of expressing support for the Iranian reformers.

Clinton's expected announcement drew fire from the Council of Iranian American Organizations.