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26 June 2003 Edition

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Iranian dissidents set themselves on fire

A dozen Iranian opposition protestors took the desperate step of setting themselves alight outside European embassies this week to highlight the undemocratic nature of the Iranian regime. One woman in Paris died, while others suffered horrific injuries.

The supporters were protesting raids by French agents in Paris last week, which saw 1,300 agents raid 13 addresses, arresting 159 people, members of the National Council for Resistance of Iran (NCRI), the Paris-based parliament in exile of the People's Mojahedin of Iran. Almost all were released without charge, but 17 have been put under formal investigation for aiding terrorism. Among those arrested was Maryam Rajavi, NCRI leader and wife of the People's Mojahedin military chief, Massoud Rajavi. She is among eleven of those detained who have been refused bail.

On Sunday, some 700 supporters protested in Paris. Forty men and women have gone on hunger strike to protest the arrests. "She [Rajavi] symbolises the hopes of an entire people," said spokesperson Helene Fathpour, "the dream that when the mullahs in Tehran have been overthrown, our country can become democratic, secular, and ruled by the people."

The raids and arrests followed anti-government protests on the streets of Tehran by students this month voicing their opposition to the clerical regime that has ruled the country since the 1979 overthrow of the US-backed Shah. Their demonstrations were met with state violence - with vigilantes on motor bikes attacking students as they protested - and with a warning from Iran's former President, Hashemi Rafsanjani, not to ally themselves with the United States.

The reactionary right-wing clerical faction that currently rules Iran is blaming the US for instigating the demonstrations, which Washington has applauded. But the protests have more to do with the Iranian people's desire for freedom than any American influence or encouragement.

Speaking to An Phoblacht this week, an Iranian lecturer who has been forced to live in exile for more than 20 years says: "The protests can only be seen within the context of a cry of a nation who have had enough of oppression, human rights abuses and denial of the most basic human rights."

The Iranian opposition has also accused the Syrian government of deporting two members of the organisation to the Iranian regime and has expressed concern for the wellbeing of the pair, Abrahim Khodabandeh and Jamil Bassam, who were based in Britain for the past 25 years. Both men hold British refugee status, which entitles them to internatonal protection.

The families of the two men said the arrests and deportation to Iran breached the UN Convention on political refugess and called on British Prime Minister Tony Blair to "intervene immediatly to secure their safe return".

Execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg - 50th anniversary

Fifty years ago this month, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed as spies in the United States. They had been sentenced to death after they were found guilty of conspiring to pass secrets on the atomic bomb to the USSR. Ethel's brother, whose evidence sent her to the electric chair, has recently admitted that he lied. The 'Spy' trial took place at the height of anti-communist hysteria and paranoia.
On 19 June 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, both Jews, were strapped to the electric chair in Sing Sing prison, New York, and executed as spies. Julius went first, quietly and quickly. It took three jolts to kill his wife. The night before they died she sang 'Goodnight Irene': He sang 'Battle Hymn of the Republic'. Outside the gates of the prison on the night of the execution, Paul Robeson sang 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot'. It was a grizzly end to an inglorious episode in American history.

The couple were sentenced to death after they were found guilty of conspiring to pass secrets on the atomic bomb to the USSR. There is some evidence that Julius was in fact guilty of industrial espionage but even that was of a very low calibre. The only evidence against Ethel was provided by her brother, David Greenglass. He too had been arrested and was under indictment. He told the court that his sister had transcribed his spy notes destined for Moscow on a portable Remington typewriter. His wife, Ruth, corroborated his testimony. Two years ago, he emerged from hiding and admitted that Roy Cohn, an assistant prosecutor, encouraged him to lie under oath and to testify against the Rosenbergs. He admits that he did so to save himself and his wife.

Following the arrest and conviction in 1950 of Klaus Fuchs, a German-born scientist who confessed to passing classified information about the US atomic programme to the Russians, the FBI began an investigation of all who had worked with Fuchs in the top secret US atomic development headquarters of Los Alamos, New Mexico. Harry Gold, a Swiss-born chemist, was arrested as a Fuchs accomplice. He was followed by David Greenglass (Ethel's brother), who had worked as a machinist at the plant.

In July 1950, the Rosenbergs were arrested. Julius had worked for the US Army Signal Corps as an electrical engineer during the second world war. Though they had been members of the American Communist Party, by 1943, it seems, they were no longer active. They were accused of convincing Greenglass to provide Harry Gold with atomic secrets. At the trial, Ethel and Julius maintained their innocence but her brother pleaded guilty and turned state's evidence. He was sentenced to 15 years for his trouble. Henry Gold and Morton Sobell, a co-defendant, got 30 years each. The Rosenbergs were sentenced to death.

The 'Spy' trial took place at the height of anti-communist hysteria and paranoia. On 9 February 1950, Senator Joe McCarthy said that communism not only threatened capitalism but that Russia was "a moral enemy of the United States". The trial also took place during the Korean War, which at that time was going badly for the Americans. Following their arrest, the media and the FBI led a campaign against them. They were blamed with having caused the war against Korea. The public clamoured for harsh punishment for these 'communists traitors'. In the public mind, they were 'traitors' even though they were never charged or convicted of 'treason'.

Draconian laws were passed, such as the Internal Security Act of 1950 (McCarron Act), which declared that to be a communist meant that your allegiance was to the Soviet Union. Overnight, about 500,000 Americans, including the Rosenbergs, had become Soviet spies. Fear stalked the land.

The American public feared the threat of Soviet and Chinese power. Political activists, civil libertarians, socialists, communists feared immediate arrest and worse.

The House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) interviewed thousands of individuals, calling on them to turn in their neighbours, co-workers, friends or family members whom they suspected of being communists.

Cold War hysteria increased when President Truman announced in 1949 that there was evidence that the Soviet Union was conducting atomic tests. US officials reasoned that, as the Soviets were incapable of developing an atom bomb, then they must have stolen the formula from the USA. FBI Director J Edgar Hoover dubbed the Rosenbergs' alleged spying "the crime of the century". Arthur Miller, in his play, 'The Crucible,' compared the era to that of the Salem Witch Trials of the 17th century. During the trial, the Rosenbergs were grilled on their views of the Soviet system and whether they were members of the Communist Party. They pleaded the Fifth Amendment, thereby refusing to answer questions that might incriminate them.

In sentencing them to death, Judge Irving Kaufman said: "I believe your conduct in putting into the hands of the Russians the A-bomb... has already caused the communist aggression in Korea, with the resultant casualties exceeding 50,000 and who knows but that millions more of innocent people may pay the price of your treason."

Kaufman condemned them for treason, althought they hadn't been charged with treason, which is usually defined as aiding the enemy during wartime. The Rosenbergs were supposed to have given secrets to the Russians during the Second World War, when Russia was an ally of the US.

Despite his spying activities, the death sentence on 35-year-old Julius Rosenberg was harsh in the extreme, and unwarranted. For Ethel, two years his senior, it was a blatant miscarriage of justice.

In the end, four justices of the Supreme Court were willing to stay their executions: It takes five. The Rosenbergs' two sons, Robert and Michael, marched carrying signs reading "Don't Kill My Mommy and Daddy", thousands of Rosenberg supporters paraded on two continents, radio broadcasts were sponsored on their behalf, letters asking for clemency poured into the White House, the Pope asked for mercy. None of it mattered.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1

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