Iran-style show trials must become a thing of the past

On July 1, 10 out of a group of 13 Iranian Jews, plus two Muslims, were given sentences of four to 13 years on the false charge that they were spying for Israel. In his verdict, the judge reportedly claimed that the men were guilty of contact with Israel, devotion to the Jewish state and study of Jewish texts.

Iran's harsh sentencing of these innocent Jews and Muslims is outrageous. The entire world Jewish community should demand their release. Iran's actions are a violation of human rights, threatening the safety and security of the Iranian Jewish community. We cannot allow these people's rights and lives to be abused while policymakers begin discussions about opening up diplomatic relations with Iran.

For the past 17 months, this innocent group was imprisoned and forced to suffer a legal process that contravened international norms. During most of that time, they were denied the right to an attorney. The only outside contact they had was with their interrogators. Statements made under these circumstances were used against them in the trials.

There was no evidence that any of these men spied for Israel. Their so-called "confessions" were full of contradictions and inconsistencies, and were given under coercive circumstances. Court officials repeatedly used the media to manipulate public opinion, including a highly suspect broadcast of two defendants' "confessions." Despite previous assurances to the contrary, the court proceedings were closed to foreign government representatives, family members, friends, media or human rights activists who were in Iran to observe the trial.

The trial of the Jews by the hard-line Iranian judiciary had all the hallmarks of a witch-hunt, bringing to mind the Salem witch trials of 1692 where some 20 people were accused of using witchcraft and of being agents of Satan. They were found guilty and hanged. A panel of judges, who also served as the prosecutors, convicted them based on evidence accessible only to the accusers.

Similarly, in the Iranian court, the 10 convicted Iranian Jews were accused of being agents for Israel, which Iranian clerics call "Little Satan." The judge, prosecutor and jury was the same person. The accused were not allowed to examine the charges against them, thus rendering the evidence visible only to their accusers.

The verdicts have exacerbated fear and anxiety in the Iranian Jewish community, which had flourished for more than 2,500 years, but saw its numbers dwindle from 100,000 before the 1979 revolution to 25,000 today. Since 1979, Iran has executed 17 Jews on charges of "spying" for Israel.

The primary reason that the defendants were spared the death penalty in this case was due to international pressure from the United States, France and other European Union members. It is clear that had the world remained silent, Iran would have taken that lack of response as a signal of the acceptance of these abuses, and the sentences would have been much harsher.

As the case moves into an appeals process, what is now needed is continued international pressure. Sign onto a petition for the prisoners' release at

Individuals can also help by writing to those countries and leaders that have diplomatic and economic relations with Iran: the member nations of the European Union, the United Nations, the Vatican, the Russian Federation and Japan.

The U.S. government has been very active. President Clinton has called on Iran to "overturn these unjust sentences." Congressional initiatives are under way to signal to Iran the U.S. outrage with this farcical case and verdict.

This interest and involvement needs to be sustained. The international community must continue its vigilance in calling for justice for the defendants and the safety and well-being of the entire Jewish community in Iran.

Witch-hunts are never rational, whether in Puritan Salem, or in revolutionary Iran. However, if Iran does not hear from others around the world, it gets the message that its actions are condoned. We must remind the Iranian clerics that if Iran is to join the family of nations, these show trials must become a thing of the past. The lives of the remaining Jewish community depend upon it.