Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - One of 13 Iranian Jews, accused of espionage along with eight Muslims, allegedly confessed on Monday to spying for Israel as the closely-watched trial reopened in the southern Iranian city of Shiraz.
Dani Tefilin, the leading defendant in the case, "has confessed to spying for Israel in court today, and his case is finished," Hossein Ali Amiri, the provincial judiciary chief, was quoted as saying.
"Tefilin has confessed to relations with Mossad [the Israeli intelligence agency], to being trained in Israel, to being on the [Mossad] payroll and to giving classified information to Mossad,'' Amiri told reporters after the closed court hearing.
Tefilin, a shopkeeper, allegedly confessed and asked for a pardon. Amiri did not say when a verdict would be delivered against Tefilin, but he said the proceedings against the other accused should be over within weeks.
The defendants' lawyer, Esmail Nasseri, said his clients were not guilty of espionage because whatever they may have done did not involve the transfer of any classified material.
In Jerusalem, Iranian affairs analyst Menashe Amir said there was "no doubt the confession was taken through torture and pressure."
Amir, who immigrated to Israel from Iran 40 years ago, told CNSNew.com that "[the confession] cannot be reliable at all if it's not supported at all by any evidence."
"No court which works through justice," he added, could rely on a confession not backed by evidence.
The trial of the 13, who were arrested a year ago and accused of spying for Israel and the United States, opened on April 13th but was adjourned until May 1st to give lawyers a chance to prepare their clients' defense.
Both Israel and the US vehemently denied having any connections with the accused. The allegations of spying for the US were subsequently dropped.
The trial in the Iranian revolutionary court, controlled by hard-line elements in the government, is taking place against the backdrop of a power struggle between "hardliners" and the more moderate President Mohammed Khatami, who favors improving relations with the US.
The recent closure of 16 pro-reform newspapers has signaled that Khatami may be losing influence that may not bode well for the Iranian Jews.
"The last events in Iran [will have a] negative impact on the fate of Iranians and especially on the 13 on trial," Amir said.
If Khatami is losing ground, he will be unable to help the Jews, Amir said. "For the moment, he is trying to keep himself safe."
Western diplomats, the international Jewish community and human rights groups have all demanded either the immediate release or a fair and open trial for the Jews.
The court has refused to allow observers for "reasons of national security."
The accused face long prison terms or, if they are found guilty of having "endangered national security," they could be executed. Seventeen Jews have been put to death in Iran over the past 20 years on espionage charges, two of them in 1997.
Iran has pledged to give the 13 a fair trial and said that their being Jewish had nothing to do with the case.
The Jewish community in Shiraz, 550 miles south of the capital Tehran, is known for being more visible than most in its Jewish observance. Most of those arrested were leaders in the community.
An Iranian Jewish leader, Haroun Yashahaei, was quoted by the Iranian news agency as saying that "those accused of espionage have not been arrested because they are Jews."
Yashahaei said: "The foreign media has blown the trial out of proportion in order to use it for political ends."
But Amir disagrees. "[They] were arrested only because of the Jewish religious activity," he said. "[They] were not in a position where they could have gathered information about the Iranian military."
Prior to the 1979 Iranian revolution, there were 80,000 Jews in Iran. Today, the community numbers 25,000 but is still the largest in the Middle East outside of Israel.
Israel's Sephardic Chief Rabbi, Eliahu Bakshi Doron, called for a day of prayer and solidarity with the Iranian Jews on Thursday.