The televised confession of an Iranian Jew charged with spying for Israel and the United States was nothing more than a scripted sham, leaders of Los Angeles' Jewish community said Tuesday.
"If this is not a sham trial, I don't know what is," said George Haroonian of the Council of Iranian American Jewish Organizations.
"This so-called confession was well orchestrated to show to the world that what the judicial authorities in Iran are claiming is right," he said.
About 30,000 Iranian Jews live in the Los Angeles area, including relatives--sisters, brothers and uncles--of the 13 Jewish men charged with espionage, Haroonian said.
Those relatives have chosen not to speak to the press, he said, for fear of retaliation against the defendants in Iran.
Jews offered special prayers for the prisoners during Passover last month, and more than 300 turned out for a special vigil in support of the accused spies.
Hamid Tefilin, the first of those charged with espionage more than a year ago, went on trial Monday in Shiraz, about 420 miles south of Tehran.
Iranian state television carried a taped confession from Tefilin, a shoe store clerk in Shiraz, who said: "I accept the charges against me. I spied for Israel."
The U.S. and Israeli governments have called the charges against the men baseless. Israel on Monday reiterated that it had no connection with any of the suspects and called the charges against them "ludicrous and barbaric."
The defendants have been held virtually incommunicado since their arrests in February 1999. The proceedings against them, which could result in the death penalty, have been closed to the public.
Sinai Temple Senior Rabbi David Wolpe called Tefilin's confession "absurdly implausible."
"Even if the confession had been made with a lawyer [present] and with evidence, what does a Jewish shoe clerk know of the workings of the Iranian government?" Wolpe said.
"The fact they would put it on television as if it were plausible shows how out of touch Iran's government is with the workings of the world," he said.
Some foreign diplomats in Iran have indicated that the charges against the accused spies are exaggerated and were filed as part of the power struggle between conservatives and reformers.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center said a conservative newspaper in Iran had written that if the 13 Jews are guilty, all of the Jews in Iran are guilty.
Cooper said the accused spies have been asked such questions as: Did you have contact with people overseas? Did you discuss world affairs in your synagogue? Do you have relatives in Israel?
By those standards, he said, anyone of the Jewish faith can be made to appear suspicious.
Sam Kermanian of the Iranian American Jewish Federation said Tefilin's confession and the pending trials are "part of the pattern of fabrication that Iranian judicial authorities are engaged in to . . . [convict] these people for crimes they haven't done."
Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) has sponsored a House resolution demanding that the prisoners be freed, and has urged the World Bank to deny Iran a pending $225-million loan.