Iran on Thursday released three Jews who were convicted for spying for Israel and the United States three-and-a-half years ago.
David Beit-Ya'akov and Farzad Kashi, had been sentenced to six years in prison, and Shaharouk Faknahad, had been sentenced to five years. The three were among the 13 Jews of Shiraz arrested for spying. Four had been released prior to Thursday's decision, leaving five of the original group still serving time.
Shortly after Iran announced the arrests in June 1999, then-prime minister Ehud Barak stated the detainees had never spied for Israel. It was feared they would be executed, but following massive international pressure, they were sentenced to jail terms of up to 13 years. Three of them were released during the trial.
Two of the prisoners, who were sentenced to two and three years respectively, had been previously released.
Israel Radio's Iranian affairs commentator Menashe Amir said Thursday night that the timing of the release is probably due to Tehran's desire to promote trade relations with the European Union. The EU has conditioned expanding trade ties with Iran on the releasing the Jewish prisoners, recognizing Israel, stopping the sabotage of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and halting production of weapons for mass destruction.
Avishai Bar-Osher, head of the Organization for Prisoners of Zion in Iran, said Thursday evening that there were good chances that Iran would release another the five prisoners.
Speaking last week at a "solidarity congress" with some 50 leaders of Sephardic Jewish communities from around the world, President Moshe Katsav said that most of the prisoners would be released in the near future.
During the meeting, Katsav was questioned about the fate of the remaining Jews sentenced for espionage, as well as on 11 other Jews who vanished after they tried to flee the country.
"To my delight, no evidence has been found against them and most of the [group's] members will be released in the near future," said Katsav. On the subject of the missing group, Katsav said that efforts were being made to locate them, but admitted that not much progress had been made.
The affair began at the start of 1999, when 20 Jews from Shiraz were detained on charges of what the Iranian government claimed was espionage for the United States and Israel. In June 1999, Iran officially arrested 13 members of the group. Since then, Israel has been using Jewish organizations around the world to press President Khatami to release the Jews.