Iran’s Jewish Prisoners – Hostages to Its Trade Ties
A small group of Iranian Jews – between three and eight – is missing.
After announcing their imminent release from jail, no one in the Islamic Republic now admits to knowing their whereabouts. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Tehran sources have established that the men never reached their homes, leaving their families gravely concerned.
The closed-door trial in July 2000 in the southern Iranian city of Shiraz which convicted thirteen Iranian Jews of spying for the “Zionist regime” was widely condemned internationally. It was held in a “revolutionary” court, in which the judge is also prosecutor. The sentences handed down ranged from eight to twelve years. Human rights groups urged Iran to overturn the convictions. Three were subsequently cleared and two completed their sentences.
For the last three years, world Jewish leaders and human rights activists have been working to obtain the release of the remaining eight. In August, the only Jewish deputy in the Iranian parliament, the Majlis, Maurice Mo’tamed, appealed to Khamenei to pardon the Jewish prisoners before the Jewish New Year in September. His request was rejected.
Suddenly, last week, it was announced in Tehran that Iran’s supreme ruler, Ali Khamenei had pardoned three of the jailed Jews, their names placed on the list of 742 to be released on the occasion of the birthday of the Mahdi, the Shiite messiah. The announcement came with a promise to commute the sentences of the last five Jews still in prison.
“The release brought happiness” to Iran’s small Jewish community, said one of its leaders.
The Jewish deputy in the Majlis boasted to the French News Agency that his efforts had borne fruit. The head of the Jewish Community of Tehran, Haroun Yeshaya, publicly thanked the Iranian spiritual leader. Even the chief prosecutor of Fars province, Hossein Ali Amiri, was willing to be interviewed by AFP. Without offering concrete information, he implicitly confirmed the pardon granted the first three prisoners and indicated the last five would soon be home after an early release.
The three statements created a stir in the world media, conveying the impression that Iran’s regime of repression had undergone a miraculous conversion.
The Iranian government’s intense hatred for Israel makes its 25,000 Jews, one of the last communities left in Middle East Muslim country, intensely vulnerable. More than 50,000 have emigrated since the Khomeinist revolution in 1979, although Jewish roots in that country go back to Biblical times.
At first the gesture was welcomed, although its motivation was unclear – until a meeting of European Union foreign ministers in Luxembourg made the improvement of Iran’s human rights performance a prerequisite for talks on expanded trade. This and other gestures – such as the promise to free Manouchehr Mohammadi, a student held in prison for the last three years for demonstrating against the regime – were then exposed as tactical moves for improving Iran’s trade relations.
However the ministers were not satisfied. They required a letter from Tehran in which the Islamic Republic committed itself to improving human rights, abstaining from disrupting any Israel-Palestinian dialogue and aiding terrorist groups, as well as suspending its weapons of mass destruction program. When the ayatollahs failed to deliver, the European ministers postponed trade expansion talks for six months.
Telephone calls by our sources in Tehran to the Jewish families in Shiraz and Isfahan were met with the same disconsolate response: None of the reportedly released prisoners – Javid Beit Yaqub, 42, Faramarz Kashi, 32, and Shahrokh Pakknahad, 24 – have been seen. The Shiraz prison authorities will not say if the men have been freed or not.