Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS-ARGENTINA: Trial Begins on Jewish Centre Bomb Attack

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Sep 25 2001 (IPS) - Argentine justice won international attention Monday with the beginning of the trial of 20 people who are accused of being the “local connection” in a 1994 car-bomb attack against a Jewish centre here that killed 86 people and is believed to have been planned outside of Argentina.

In the public hearings, which are taking place amid a fortified security apparatus, the three-judge panel will attempt to determine who provided the logistical support for the attack against the Argentine-Israeli Mutual Association (AMIA), which investigators allege was planned and financed by extremist groups in Syria or Iran.

The public prosecutors said Monday that they have not ruled out the possibility that the intellectual authors and perpetrators of the AMIA bombing could have ties to the Saudi-born Osama bin Laden, who the United States considers the primary suspect behind the Sep 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

The destruction of the AMIA headquarters with the car-bomb occurred two years after a similar attack levelled the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, leaving 29 people dead.

The investigation into the car-bomb attack on the embassy, which went as far as Argentina’s Supreme Court of Justice, was wrapped out without producing any concrete results. The families of the AMIA victims maintain that the trial now underway has even fewer clues to the truth than the embassy case did.

But the AMIA attorneys assert that they do hold important evidence and that one of the suspects in the embassy attack figures on the list of the US Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) of possible authors of the Sep 11 terror incidents.

Fifteen of the 20 Argentines accused of collaborating with the terrorists who destroyed the AMIA were members of the police force of Buenos Aires province at the time of the bombing.

The public prosecutor’s office reckons that five of the 20 were “essential participants” in the attack for having done the legwork to obtain and prepare the vehicle that was ultimately used as a car-bomb.

Amid the rubble of the former AMIA building, investigators found the engine of the truck that had been loaded with explosives and detonated outside the Jewish centre, located in a central district of Buenos Aires.

The identification of the motor led the police to a mechanic, Carlos Telleldín, who, after being detained in 1994, stated that he had installed the engine at the request of Buenos Aires police agents.

The accused police deny Telleldín’s story, while experts maintain that there is no conclusive evidence to establish a connection between the statements made by either side.

Because of this, the investigators, attorneys and victims’ families are hopeful that the public oral hearings will provide new pieces to the puzzle.

The court has called 1,470 witnesses to testify in a process that is expected to last seven to 10 months.

Public prosecutor José Barbaccia, one of the three who took part in the investigations related to this case, stated Monday that throughout the process they will attempt “to put an end to the structures of silence and complicity erected among the accused.”

In spite of the many doubts expressed by the families of the victims, who assert that the seven-year investigation involved many irregularities and cover-ups, no one seems to be ruling out the chance that the legal proceedings now underway might shed light on the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington nearly two weeks ago.

But for many the focus remains one of personal tragedy. “Today is very important for us,” stated Sofía Guterman, Monday, whose daughter died in the AMIA attack.

“We worked for more than seven years and we would have liked to have them all on trial: the ideologues, those who prepared the bomb, those who detonated it, and those who were accomplices. But at least we still have hope of finding out the truth,” she said.

“If the police tell us who they handed the truck to, that would open the doors to the international connection, where the big fish can be found,” Guterman pointed out.

She stresses that nobody knows what happened in the week leading up to the bombing, that there is a “black hole” in the investigation and it is impossible to penetrate.

“We know that the vehicle existed, that it was provided by policeman Juan José Ribelli on July 10, ten days before the attack,” she said.

Guterman went on to explain that Ribelli and Telleldín had lied and had provided false evidence for several years, which meant potentially definitive delays for the investigation.

Diana Malamud, meanwhile, widow of an architect who died in the AMIA tragedy, is more sceptical.

Malamud, a member of the group of victims’ families known as ‘Memoria Activa’, told IPS that the legal proceedings are an attempt to close the book on a matter that was covered up by politicians, lawmakers and legal officials.

“For many, this trial should have been an epilogue, but for the families it is barely the beginning of an investigation in which there were serious incidents of concealment by politicians and by judicial and police officials,” she said.

More than a year ago, ‘Memoria Activa’ filed a claim before the Inter-American Court on Human Rights (IACHR) in which it accuses the Argentine government of failing to prevent the attack, of ineffectiveness in its judicial investigations and of failing to mete out justice in the seven years since the attack.

IACHR president Claudio Grossman, of Chile, was present Monday for the opening of the trial and said he would return periodically to keep informed of any progress in the proceedings.

Other such observers include representatives of the Israeli government here and, of course, leaders of the Jewish community of Argentina, the largest in Latin America at approximately 300,000.

But the victims’ families united in ‘Memoria Activa’ do not hold much faith in such shows of support because they believe the representatives are vulnerable to being swayed by political pressures and economic interests.

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