S.F. vigil for Iranian 13 draws 100 to protest spy trial

"If my cousin is a spy for Israel, then so was the Ayatollah Khomeini," said Fred Zaghi at a solidarity rally Monday for the 13 Iranian Jews on trial for espionage.

Zaghi, who emigrated here from Shiraz, the southern Iranian city that is home to most of the accused spies, was one of more than 100 people who attended the vigil at San Francisco's Congregation Emanu-El.

Now living in Los Altos, Zaghi said he grew up "learning about Judaism" from his cousin Asher Zadmehr, the leader of the fervently religious Jewish community in Shiraz.

Zadmehr, 49, was among the Jews arrested for espionage early last year.

"It is beyond ridiculous that he's being persecuted for being a spy," said Zaghi, who helped lead a Ma'ariv (evening service) for the imprisoned Jews after the rally.

"This trial just tears my heart out."

Since the trial began earlier this month, eight of the 13 have pleaded guilty of espionage, one has pleaded guilty to other activities but not to spying, and four have pleaded innocent. However, the proceedings, which are not open to the public, have been widely criticized as a show trial.

The concept that Jews around the world constitute "one big family" prompted Hillary Davis, another audience member, to travel nearly 100 miles to attend the vigil.

Noting that one of the defendants was just a year older than her, the 16-year-old from Stockton's Temple Israel, said the jailed teenager could have been "my brother — or my boyfriend."

Davis, one of four teens who made the commute with their rabbi, was not the only person who had a hard time understanding how an adolescent could be placed on trial for spying.

"Who are these so-called spies?" thundered the Rev. Gerry O'Rourke, director of ecumenical and interreligious affairs for the Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco.

"They are tailors, shoe clerks and religious leaders," he said, "and I sincerely doubt any of these people are likely to be cast in a James Bond movie."

The professions of the accused are not relevant, according to Zaghi, who said the Iranian government is only concerned with prosecuting religious leaders.

"The Iranian government is a lot smarter than people think," Zaghi said. "They want to eliminate the Jewish community from the top down, so they take away the leaders. Anyone who promotes Judaism is a target."

Over the years, there have been plenty of targets, according to statistics provided by the American Jewish Committee, one of the sponsors of the event.

Seventeen Jews have been executed since the Iranian revolution of 1979, many of them for spying.

The number of Iranian Jews condemned to death because of their religious beliefs should cause a "clench in people's stomachs," said Dan Grossman, president of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, another event sponsor.

The gathering was also sponsored by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, the American Jewish Congress, the Anti-Defamation League and the Board of Rabbis of Northern California.

Grossman, the evening's moderator, linked the fate of the "Iranian 13" to that of downed Israeli pilot Ron Arad and famed diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who rescued Jews during World War II and who disappeared under mysterious circumstances.

"The scales of justice are warped in this trial," Grossman said. "The Jews on trial have been falsely accused and appallingly treated."

According to speaker Iftekhar Hai of the United Muslims of America, the trial is not in keeping with Islamic traditions.

"This trial goes against the basic principles of Islam," said Hai. "There are no witnesses, and no attorneys present– so let me be quite clear that this is not the Islamic way of justice."

That injustice was addressed by Jim Lazarus, who represented Sen. Dianne Feinstein at the event.

Lazarus read from a resolution co-sponsored by Feinstein, a San Francisco Democrat and an Emanu-El congregant, and by fellow U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, a Democrat from Greenbrae.

The Senate resolution calls for the charges against the 13 to be immediately dropped and for the prisoners to be subsequently released.

The outcome of the trial will play a large factor in determining whether U.S. sanctions against Iran eventually will be lifted, according to Lazarus.

The resolution didn't mitigate Zaghi's fears, however.

"I'm not worried about the United States," said Zaghi. "I'm worried about countries like France and Germany that trade with Iran despite the U.S. sanctions. These countries are supposedly on the frontlines for human rights — but all they care about is helping their economy."