Letter from Shiraz: Jews on Trial

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When springtime orange blossoms perfume the air, it is easy to understand why the lovely southern city of Shiraz is so dear to Iranians. Visitors go on pleasant outings to the garden tombs of Hafez and Sa'di, the epic poets of Persian culture, or they wander through the lively bazaar to bargain over magnificent carpets hand-woven by nomadic tribesmen.

But since the arrest of 13 Jews more than a year ago on charges of spying for Israel, Shiraz has become for many a symbol of the Islamic Republic's uglier side. The case caused an international furor, with Western governments and Jewish groups condemning Iran for fabricating allegations. Iranian Jews had tried to quiet the commotion, fearing it would make things worse for the 13 -- a rabbi, Hebrew teachers, shopkeepers and a 17-year-old student -- who face possible death sentences. But last week, as the closed-door trial finally got underway in the city's Revolutionary Court, the anguish became unbearable. "This is an accusation against Iran's entire Jewish community!" cried Haroun Yashayaii, a spokesman for Iranian Jews. "We love Iran!"

But there is more at stake than the fate of Iran's ancient Jewish community, today numbering about 35,000, which traces its origins to the 6th century B.C. when Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon and freed its Jewish slaves. The case is widely seen as an important sideshow in Iran's deadly internal power struggle, which pits reformist President Mohammed Khatami against hard-line conservatives who control the security forces and courts, the powerful institutions behind the investigation. Although it is outside Khatami's direct control, the trial could undo much that he has sought to accomplish, precisely what would please his conservative opponents. Convictions could mock Khatami's promise to strengthen the rule of law, demoralizing many of his supporters. Moreover, harsh sentences could freeze the President's thus far impressive efforts to mend Iran's relations with the West.

As indicated by Yashayaii's outburst, concern remains high. Many Iranians believe the case arose after overzealous security police caught the accused in the act of something less sinister than spying -- perhaps visiting, or simply e-mailing, Israel. Initially, it took judicial authorities three months to acknowledge that they had arrested the Jews as spy suspects. The accused were refused family visits or legal counsel. The then head of Iran's judiciary, Ayatollah Mohammed Yazdi, declared that the Jews were guilty, suggesting that executions were a foregone conclusion. When Judge Sadeq Nourani opened the trial last week, he disappointed hopes for a transparent hearing by barring the attendance of the public, journalists and foreign diplomats. It was only days before the trial that lawyers were finally appointed and the dossiers in the case made available to the defendants.

Yet lately there have been signs that Khatami's moderate touch is being felt in the case, and rumors suggest a way is being sought behind the scenes to resolve it. The President called for a fair trial and has been quick to point out that eight Muslims are also accused in the case. Khatami publicly met with a Jewish member of parliament to discuss the trial, and government officials agreed to go over issues with a Human Rights Watch representative visiting Iran. Asked about the fate of the suspects, Khatami's Foreign Minister assured reporters that Iran does not execute spies in peacetime. In perhaps the most remarkable face of Iranian justice seen in many years, Judge Nourani not only agreed to a meeting with Iran's chief rabbi, but paid the defendants an emotional visit in prison. When he handed out gifts ahead of this week's Jewish observance of Passover, some of the accused wept.

If Nourani's gesture was a sign of genuine compassion, it will be warmly welcomed by Iranian Jews. While tens of thousands emigrated after the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the community -- still the largest remaining in the Muslim Middle East -- is hopeful about Khatami's reforms. An official minority under the constitution, Jews have a seat in parliament (the holder of it takes his oath on a Hebrew Bible), serve as government officials and fight in the army. They run dozens of synagogues, schools, hospitals and cemeteries, and hold weddings and bar mitzvahs, where guests are legally permitted to drink wine despite the Islamic prohibition against alcohol. Many Jews have justifiable complaints about discrimination, but nothing like the Baha'is, a 150-year-old sect numbering 350,000 that is systematically and harshly persecuted.

In a narrow back alley of the Jewish quarter of Shiraz, the afternoon light is fading as a man named Nejat Broukhim arrives at the Shokr synagogue, putting on a yarmulke. He is one of three Jewish defendants recently released on bail. "I am very upset because I am innocent," he says. He is skittish about speaking to a reporter, but hastens to add a hopeful note. "Our judge," he whispers, "seems very good." But not content to leave his fate in a mortal's hands, Baruchi disappears into his house of worship to ask God for justice, too.