Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

ARGENTINA: AMIA Bomb Trial Merely Tip of Iceberg

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Feb 3 2004 (IPS) - For the victims’ families, it seems like it was only yesterday that the seven-story Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires collapsed in a blast that left 86 dead.

But nearly 10 years have passed since a car-bomb destroyed the Israeli-Argentine Mutual Association (AMIA) building on Jul. 18, 1994.

And although the trial of the Argentine citizens accused of providing logistical support to those who planned the attack entered the final stretch Tuesday, with the start of open court hearings, prosecutors and the attorneys representing survivors and the families of the victims say that the evidence that has emerged so far is merely the tip of the iceberg.

”The trial of those accused of arranging the van that was used as a car-bomb helps clarify part of the attack, but it is only one link in a long chain of complicities. There are still many unanswered questions,” Marta Nercellas, one of the lawyers representing the victims’ families, told IPS.

Nercellas pointed out that there has been no response to arrest warrants issued in Argentina for 14 Iranian officials suspected of planning the attack in Tehran and Buenos Aires.

Although Iran denies any involvement in the bombing, many in Argentina’s Jewish community, the largest in Latin America, believe the blast was planned by high-ranking Iranian officials, with the assistance of Argentine citizens.

Nercellas also said there are still doubts with respect to how the explosives were obtained, and regarding possible accomplices in the government of Carlos Menem (1989-1999).

She acknowledged that President Néstor Kirchner, who took office last May, has ”opened many doors” in the past few months by making intelligence files available and allowing intelligence agents to testify. But she complained that many of the agents have not cooperated, while others have generated even greater confusion by lying in the trial.

The lawyer said that during the oral phase of the trial, it became clear that the State Secretariat of Intelligence had failed to investigate the Buenos Aires province police officers accused of participating in the bombing, even though intelligence agents confessed to paying 400,000 dollars to convince another one of the accused to testify against the implicated officers.

As a result, federal Judge Juan José Galeano was removed from the case in November, and Judge Rodolfo Canicoba Corral is now handling the investigation.

The oral phase of the trial began two and a half years ago, and former government officials, intelligence agents, members of the security forces and many other witnesses have appeared in court and provided information on the days preceding the attack, and on the van carrying 300 kgs of explosives that crashed into the AMIA building.

In the hearings that began on Tuesday, both the attorney-general’s office and the lawyers for the plaintiffs are expected to seek a life sentence for those accused of acting as the ”local connection” in the attack.

One of the accused is mechanic Carlos Telleldín, who had reached an understanding with the police that allowed him to run a shady business that involved stripping down and rebuilding stolen cars.

In the trial, it has been proven that four senior police officials brought Telleldín the van used in the attack, and instructed him to get it ready for carrying explosives.

The four former Buenos Aires province police commissioners and assistant commissioners – Juan José Ribelli, Raúl Ibarra, Anastasio Leal and Mario Barreiro – have been in prison for the past seven years.

It was Telleldín who reportedly received the 400,000 dollar payment for testifying against the four police officials.

The attorneys representing AMIA and the Delegation of Israeli-Argentine Associations are demanding life sentences for Telleldín and three of the four former police officials.

Lawyers with the organisation Families and Friends of the Victims of the AMIA Attack are also calling for life sentences, and for the impeachment of Judge Galeano for allegedly participating in paying off Telleldín.

Active Memory, another group of victims’ relatives, also wants a life sentence for Telleldín, but not for the four former police officials.

The lawyers for the plaintiffs say the current trial is merely the start of an investigation that will still be far from reaching a definitive conclusion when the court hands down its verdict in March or April.

The ongoing trial has made it clear that the security forces, intelligence services, and judiciary itself have been ineffective in making real progress towards resolving the case, which has given rise to accusations of complicity and cover-up, aimed at former members of the Menem administration.

”The intelligence agents decided not to cooperate, and Menem’s intelligence secretary, Hugo Anzorregui, answered all questions with responses that were inconceivable coming from someone with his level of responsibility, like ‘I don’t remember’, ‘I don’t know’, or ‘that didn’t reach my area’,” complained Nercellas.

The prosecution admits that the investigation was sabotaged from the start by intelligence agents and federal and Buenos Aires province police officers, who created false leads, bribed witnesses, and allowed key evidence to be lost or removed, like 65 cassette tapes containing telephone conversations among the accused.

False witnesses were also instructed by the four former police officials to throw the investigators off track, while there was a lack of cooperation at the highest levels of government until Kirchner took office.

The Immigration Office never responded to continuous court requests for information on arrivals and departures of foreign nationals in the days immediately leading up to and following the blast.

One of the most important testimonies came from Abolghasem Mesbahi, known at the start as ”Witness C” – a former Iranian intelligence agent in Europe who has received protection from the German government since he furnished information that was essential to clarifying the 1993 attack by Iran against five Iranian dissidents, carried out in the Mykonos bar in Berlin.

Mesbahi testified before the Argentine courts three times, stating that the AMIA bombing was planned in Iran, and that the van used as a car-bomb was acquired by Moshe Rabbani, cultural attaché at the time in the Iranian Embassy in Argentina.

He also said Iran’s former deputy intelligence minister, Said Emami, had told him that the government in Tehran was sent an envoy by Menem to demand 10 million dollars to cover up Iran’s alleged role in the attack.

According to investigators, Mesbahi’s description of the purported envoy could fit Jorge Lelli, a close Menem associate who served as cultural attaché in the Argentine Embassy in Iran.

But that is difficult to verify, since Lelli died in a car accident in Argentina just two months after ”Witness C” testified for the first time, and Emami died in prison after purportedly confiding in Mesbahi. Emami’s death was reported as a suicide.

Nercellas said it was ”essential” to verify whether Menem demanded a payment to cover up Iran’s alleged participation, and whether Fabricaciones Militares, a munitions factory that answers to the Defence Ministry, supplied Iranian citizen John Pashai with explosives months before the attack, as witnesses have alleged during the trial.

However, Nercellas was pessimistic regarding the possibility of advancing along those lines, although she said she was sure that the explosives used in the AMIA bombing were acquired in Argentina.

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