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400 Hold Vigil for Jews Being Tried as Spies in Iran

Rights: Supporters say defendants are being prosecuted because of their religion.


Hours after a senior Iranian court official declared an end to courtroom proceedings for 13 Jews accused of spying for Israel, more than 400 Angelenos gathered for a candlelight vigil half a world away to renew their demand that the prisoners be released.

They, like the U.S. and Israeli governments and officials in several European nations, contend that the charges against the 13 men are baseless.

At Wednesday's vigil at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, graduating seniors at Yeshiva University High School of Los Angeles wore gray and white striped prison garb and filed in solemn procession to the podium, where they recited the name, age and occupation of each prisoner.

The accused men have relatives among the 30,000 Iranian Jews living in Los Angeles--about the same number remaining in Iran--but those relatives have been afraid to talk about the case for fear of retaliation against the prisoners.

However, one prisoner's uncle, who requested anonymity, said Wednesday that he and his family could not believe Iran's government would go to such lengths to put away people who practice their religion openly.

Relatives in Iran have been able to visit the prisoners over the past few months, he said, but the case has taken a serious toll on his family.

"It's a bad situation," he said. "Everyone is upset. I'm very worried about what will happen when the verdict is read."

The Wiesenthal Center's Rabbi Abraham Cooper said it's "not an overstatement to say there is a sense of panic" in Iran among Jews. Their "shops get burned down, kids get taunted on their way to school. . . . These are people who very much want to continue traditions that have gone on nearly 3,000 years."

George Haroonian, coordinator of the Council of Iranian American Jewish Organizations, described a growing anti-Semitism being pushed by Iran's Islamic government.

The accused men "are simple religious personalities who have been in jail in solitary now for more than a year," Haroonian said. "We think the reason it took more than a year for the judiciary to bring them to trial is that they were working on getting their so-called confessions."

Hossein Ali Amiri, the judiciary chief of the province in which the trial is being held, announced on Iranian radio that the defense had rested its case and that only two unspecified queries remained. "Once we get a response, the case will be closed and the court will issue a verdict within a week," Amiri said.

The defendants, who include a textile shopkeeper, a religion teacher and a university language professor, don't face the death penalty because they were not indicted on mohareb, or taking up arms against God and the state, Amiri has said. But Haroonian said Wednesday that he does not believe the death penalty has been ruled out.

Eight Muslims also are charged in the case, including two accused of passing secret information to the Jewish defendants.

Cooper unveiled a campaign to gather 1 million signatures urging release of the defendants, which will be sent to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say in all matters.

The petition drive will be conducted largely on the Wiesenthal Center's Internet site (, and individual e-mails will be forwarded to Iranian authorities.

Nazir Khaja, former president of the American Muslim Council, attended the vigil, saying he was there to show his support for an open trial and due process.

"The name of Islam is usually exploited by anyone trying to support an action not based on justice--the fundamental rule laid out in Islam," he said.

Assemblyman Antonio Villaraigosa, a Los Angeles mayoral candidate and the vigil's keynote speaker, called for any future economic or cultural ties between the United States and Iran to be contingent upon the release of the prisoners.

"We will not sacrifice human rights on the altar of economics," he said.

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