The second of 10 Iranian Jews jailed on charges of spying for Israel has been freed, but Jewish leaders don't see it as a shift in Iranian policy.
"We take no delight in an innocent man serving more than 1,000 days in a prison for exercising his religion," said Pooya Dayanim, spokesman for the Los Angeles-based Council of Iranian-American Jewish Organizations, referring to Hebrew teacher Faramarz Kashi, 35, who was released Tuesday.
Thirteen Jews originally were arrested on espionage charges in the winter of 1999. Many of the accused "confessed" to the charges, though Jewish groups scoffed at the idea that the confessions were offered freely. Several later recanted.
Media and foreign ambassadors were not allowed to observe the court proceedings, in which the prosecutor also served as judge.
Three of the accused were acquitted, but the other 10 were convicted in July 2000 of national security violations and given sentences ranging from four to 13 years.
The sentences were reduced to two to nine years on appeal.
Israel denies that any of the Jews were its spies. Jewish groups contend that the case demonstrates Iran's virulent anti-Semitism.
"The arrests were politically motivated, the charges were politically motivated and the convictions were politically motivated," said Sam Kermanian, secretary-general of the Iranian-American Jewish Federation. "This case has nothing to do with justice or with law. It was all politics from the beginning."
The other eight prisoners, Kermanian believes, will be released only when Iran views it as politically advantageous.
"I honestly think that Iran has been moving away from even the minimum moderations it gained during the first term of President Khatami," he said.
After spending three years in jail, Kashi was released Tuesday as "a result of ongoing efforts on behalf of the prisoners, in which many people have been involved," said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Efforts included "the pressures that were brought to bear, the continuing interest of families there, and perhaps [Iran's] own domestic interest," Hoenlein said.
Kermanian said he doesn't think American or Jewish pressure played a role in Kashi's release.
"What pressure?" he asked. "He spent every day of his sentence in jail."
Originally sentenced to five years, Kashi had his sentence reduced to three. Hoenlein said Kashi had served the entire three years, counting time he was held while awaiting trial.
The first prisoner to be released, last March, was merchant Ramin Nematizadeh, whose sentence was reduced from four years to two. Nematizadeh also was involved with teaching religious school.
Kermanian acknowledged that the intervention of Western countries had been "instrumental" in saving the Jews from a death sentence when they were tried in 2000.
At the time, the prisoners were held in solitary confinement so authorities could squeeze confessions out of them, Kermanian said.
Now their conditions are relatively better, he said: They are allowed kosher food two or three times a week, and visitation rights have increased from once a week to twice a week.
However, their families, "who depend on them for their livelihood, are suffering and are in dire need," Kermanian said.
In addition, the fate of the imprisoned Jews "must make us all think about the future of the 25,000 Jews left in Iran," Dayanim said.
"The condition of the community has deteriorated substantially since the verdicts were announced," he said, as the entire Jewish community now is "regarded by their compatriots as traitors or spies."
Furthermore, Dayanim said, "avenues have been hindered" that would provide emigration for Iranian Jews.
"For some reason, governments, including the United States, are denying many of the refugee claims by Iranian Jews," he said.
Hoenlein said several visas had been delayed in the general tightening of immigration processing after Sept. 11. However, the government had given assurances that the problems would be resolved shortly, he said.
Dayanim said the plight of the Iranian Jewish community is "fully on the radar screen of the American Jewish community," but is less important to the American or Israeli governments.
A State Department official said the department had commented several times during the trial of the Iranian Jews.
Their situation is "something we are aware of and we are monitoring," the official said.
"I can tell you that the issue of Iranian Jewry is prominently featured in every high-level diplomatic effort made by the Israeli foreign service," said Ido Aharoni, spokesman for the Israeli Consulate in New York. Aharoni said Foreign Minister Shimon Peres is "personally pressing the issue,'' noting that Peres recently directed the Foreign Ministry to compile a list of statements made by Iranian leaders against Israel.
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