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Twenty-three years to the day since a Soviet court sentenced Natan Sharansky to 13 years in prison on trumped-up charges of spying for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, he stood in a Jerusalem courtroom to be confronted by the same questions.

Mr. Sharansky was cross-examined for five hours yesterday in the Jerusalem District Court by lawyers for Dr. Yuli Nudelman, author of Sharansky Unmasked, a book that claims that Mr. Sharansky was a long-time agent of the former KGB who also worked for the CIA, Israel's Mossad secret service, the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the Russian mafia.

Dr. Nudelman, who immigrated from the Soviet Union 28 years ago, has also suggested that Mr. Sharansky was never married to his wife Avital, and that he continues to influence Israeli government policy to favour the interests of the Russian secret service and criminal bosses.

For two years, Mr. Sharansky has been trying to extract an apology and retraction from Dr. Nudelman, and is now suing him for libel.

"They say that history repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce," said Mr. Sharansky, who is now the Israeli Minister of Housing and deputy prime minister.

Mr. Sharansky, then known as Anatoly Scharansky, attracted worldwide attention during the 1970s as a human-rights campaigner in the Soviet Union, where he worked with dissident leader and physicist Andrei Sakharov.

As a result of his high-profile activity as the spokesman for refuseniks (Jews forbidden to leave the Soviet Union), he was arrested by the KGB in 1977 and charged with espionage on behalf of the CIA.

U.S. president Jimmy Carter took the unprecedented step of formally declaring that Mr. Sharansky was never a CIA spy, but the dissident was found guilty and imprisoned in jails and labour camps, and spent more than a year in solitary confinement.

After a worldwide campaign co-ordinated by his wife, who left for Israel shortly after their wedding, and intense pressure from Western leaders, Mr. Sharansky was finally released in a prisoner exchange in Berlin. He arrived in Israel in February, 1986.

Mr. Sharansky, who detailed his struggle against the KGB and the Soviet authorities in his 1988 memoir Fear No Evil, became a living symbol of the continued struggle of Jews to leave the Soviet Union.

He has been an cabinet minister and Knesset member since 1996.

Lawyers for Dr. Nudelman questioned Mr. Sharansky about the lists of refuseniks he passed to Western journalists in Moscow during the 1970s, and about his relationship with Los Angeles Times correspondent Robert Toth, who played a pivotal role in exposing the hardships of Jews and dissidents under the Soviet regime.

"It's hard to believe that I am standing here in Jerusalem, in the democratic state of Israel, being asked exactly the same questions I was asked 23 years ago in a Moscow show trial," Mr. Sharansky said yesterday.

"The KGB no longer exists and I have been officially cleared of all these absurd charges by the Russian authorities, but along comes an Israeli lawyer and suggests all over again that my relationship with Robert Toth is somehow proof of a connection with the CIA."

As Mr. Sharansky was about to take the stand, Judge Zvi Segal begged Dr. Nudelman to retract his accusations and apologize. He then halted Mr. Sharansky in mid-testimony to press Dr. Nudelman and his lawyers.

"There are some people you just have to thank God for," the judge told the defence. "You are cross-examining a man who survived a nine-year nightmare through his extraordinary abilities. The more you ask, the more we hear what he suffered."

But Dr. Nudelman refused.

"I wrote the book to tell the truth as I see it," he said. " . . . My book is based on careful research, and since this case began, I have collected more evidence that only confirms my suspicions."

The case continues today.