TEHRAN, April 25 (UPI) — Iran officially announced Thursday that all remaining five Jews jailed for spying for Israel in 2000 had been freed, the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported.

“They are free now,” Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said during a news conference with the visiting foreign minister of France. Dominique de Villepin called the news “very pleasant to us.”

The five men were the last of 13 Jews who, along with eight Muslims, were arrested in the southern city of Shiraz in 1999. In July 2000, amid widespread controversy that surrounded the closed-door hearings, 10 of the Jews and two of the Muslims were convicted of spying for Israel, specifically for gathering intelligence at the state’s request about military sites and other sensitive areas. The dozen convicted received jail terms of between four and 13 years.

In September 2000, however, an appeals court reduced the sentences by nearly half, resulting in the release of two Jews who had served out their terms. Three others were pardoned last October, leaving the fate of the last five to be determined.

Jews, like the other religious minorities of Christians, Zoroastrians and Armenians residing in Iran, have representatives in the Iranian parliament, and government officials say that each group is free to practice its own religion. Some 30,000 Jews live in Iran, the biggest community in the Middle East outside Israel.

De Villepin arrived in Iran early Thursday on the third leg of a Middle East tour that had already taken him to Turkey and Jordan. While in Tehran, de Villepin met with Iranian President Mohammad Khatami and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, former president and now head of Iran’s Expediency Council.

De Villepin said: “I am here to discuss the strengthening of bilateral ties, continue the two capitals’ consultations on regional and international issues, and focus on the Palestinian-Israeli crisis.”

France and Iran were among opponents of the U.S.-British war on Iraq, arguing that any military action in that country should bear U.N. sanctions.

Rafsanjani — a powerful figure in Iran as head of the council that arbitrates in disputes between Iran’s two main governmental bodies, the legislative Majlis and the watchdog Guardian Council — criticized the United States for replacing Saddam Hussein with a retired U.S. general instead of allowing the United Nations to take charge of developing a new government for Iraq. All Iran wants with regard to Iraq is its independence, territorial integrity and freedom of the Iraqi people, Rafsanjani insisted. On Wednesday, Washington reprimanded Iran for allowing Iranian agents to enter southern Iraq and foment anti-U.S. sentiment among Shiite Muslims there — an accusation Tehran vigorously denied. Only in Iran, Iraq and Bahrain do Shiites, a sect of Islam opposed to the more common Sunni, represent the majority of the Muslim population.

Copyright 2003 by United Press International. All rights reserved.

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