'Spies' Under the Persian Rug
In the late eighties the confession/recantation television shows, publicized as voluntary interviews, lost their impact. Testimonies of survivors, publication of prison memoirs outside the country and the work of international human rights organizations had gradually exposed the truth of the interviews. This made them ineffective, even counterproductive, in demoralizing the opposition through the portrayal of political prisoners as repentant traitors. Thus the regime decided to stop broadcasting the "confessions." To be sure, repression remained intact. "Jewish and Bahai leaders continued to be shot as 'foreign spies.' Exiled politicians were increasingly assassinated. Dissidents inside Iran began to 'disappear,' die suddenly of 'natural causes' and be targeted by government propaganda." A 1994 UN report on the human rights situation estimated that there were more than 19,000 political prisoners. Moreover, Amnesty International noted that the use of torture to obtain confessions and recantations returned by the mid-nineties. The same type of "interview" was videotaped as in the past, but it was "now used solely for internal consumption--especially for trials held in camera. Like Stalinist Russia after 1939, the regime ceased broadcasting such confessions but continued to use them in closed trials. The judicial system had routinized forced confessions." Ironically, the "modern" Shah introduced the use of torture as a tool of state policy, and his successor, a "medieval" ayatollah, expanded the practice and made it more systematic. Greater accessibility to television for the general population and enhanced videotape technology enabled the "medievalists" to employ the technique more effectively than their "modernist" predecessors.
In the current Jewish spy trial in Shiraz, Iran's judicial authorities have attempted to portray the case with a nuance that could confuse the naïve or uninformed observer. Eight of the accused have "confessed" their guilt, four have pleaded innocent and one accepts responsibility for passing information to Israel but does not believe his action amounts to espionage. Three are out on bail. The trial ended May 30, and the case went to the prosecution, which is led by the trial judge. It is possible that not all the "confessors" were physically tortured, and even those who were may no longer carry the wounds of abuse. After all, the accused were not allowed to choose their lawyers and were denied visitation rights. The terror of being threatened with death or torture, particularly for members of religious minorities in a theocratic state, is sufficient to make the isolated victims willing to confess to whatever the authorities wish. As Abrahamian's interviews with the survivors or Iran's torture chambers show, we will not know exactly how the Islamic Republic's interrogators tormented the accused Jews until they are free and secure to tell their own stories.
Nine Muslims are also accused of taking part in the alleged ring. The Muslims have yet to be named publicly, but the Jewish defendants have spent more than a year in solitary confinement without access to counsel or significant contact with relatives. One of them, Shahrokh Paknahad, a rabbi, has said that his work "consisted of looking for new members [to join the spy ring] and organizing subversive activities.... We got our information through Jewish people who are close to Muslims." The rabbi has also "confessed" that he "persuaded Jewish youth to avoid military service during the Iran-Iraq war." Equally sensitive was his collection of "information from the air raid shelters" in the days of Iraqi bombing of Iranian cities, to pass on "to the Iraqi regime via Israel." To prove that he made these statements voluntarily, Paknahad concluded his televised "confessions" with a touch of Orwellian surrealism:
We can see that currently there are about 4 million Muslims living in France, but they do not have a representative in the French parliament. Whereas there are 30,000 of us, members of the Jewish minority, in Iran. The Islamic Republic of Iran's Constitution has said that we should have one deputy in the Majlis. In view of the fact that only one deputy can go to the Majlis for every 250,000 people in the country, we are privileged to have a seat in the Majlis.
Under the bizarre justice system of the Islamic Republic, convictions of the accused are primarily based not on evidence but on confessions. Thus the use of torture as a tool to obtain confession is built into the very structure of the theocratic order. Therefore, it is quite logical that the presiding judge in the trial also functions as the prosecutor. In the current case of the thirteen Jews, the single court-appointed lawyer for the accused, Esmail Nasseri, revealed to the press that no confidential material was presented in the trial but then he went on to suggest, reportedly with a straight face, that "our defense is that these suspects are not spies but they have collaborated with a foreign power. Their sentence cannot exceed 2-10 years in prison." In defending another member of the group, Ramin Farzam, a 35-year-old perfumer in Teheran who has "confessed" to "indirect espionage," Nasseri said, "It can't be said he respected his country, but he was not a spy."
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After nearly a decade of refraining from broadcasting confession/recantation shows, the propagandists of Iran's state-controlled television were back at work with their Jewish victims. Every day the court was in session the terrified defendants, as they were led by armed guards from the courtroom to jail, paused near the press corps gathered outside to inform the world that they were not under duress. Iran's hard-line clerics seem to have assumed that anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli sentiment among rival factions of the regime was strong enough to make the trial popular. But the reports of international journalists and observers leave no doubt that most Iranians see the absurdity of the charade and view the "confessions" with contempt.
It is all but evident that the trial, which is closed to the press and independent observers, is being used as a tool of state policy; the daily broadcasting of the defendants' "confessions" represents an escalation of the Islamic Republic's psychological war against the country's Jewish and Bahai minorities. The trial is also part of a drive by the hard-line clerics to exacerbate tensions with Israel and the United States and frustrate President Mohammad Khatami's efforts to improve Iran's relations with the West. Abrahamian's research was completed before the spy case became public, but if he ever has the opportunity to do a second edition of his superb book, he should consider presenting the "confessions" of the accused Jews in Shiraz as an illustration of how absurd the Iranian theocracy can become in using confession as a tool of political repression.