Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

ARGENTINA: Victims’ Families Divided Over Jewish Centre Bombing Verdict

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Sep 9 2004 (IPS) - The Argentine court ruling that acquitted the only five suspects in prison in connection with the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community centre has met with mixed reactions from the families of the victims.

Some view it as a sign of continued impunity for the perpetrators of the attack on the seven-story Argentine Israeli Mutual Aid Association (AMIA) building in downtown Buenos Aires, which killed 85 and left 300 injured, while others consider it a painful but inevitable end of a long, botched investigation and cover-up.

After a decade-long legal investigation and trial, a federal oral court on Sep. 2 absolved the five suspects, who spent up to 10 years in prison, along with 17 others implicated in the so-called “local connection” of the attack, which Argentine officials blame on the Lebanese Islamist movement Hizbullah.

Officials say the group received financial support from Iran, and Argentine courts issued warrants for the arrest of 10 former Iranian diplomats suspected of masterminding the attack. Iran denies any involvement.

The discrepancies among the families of the victims of the Jul. 18, 1994 car-bomb attack were highlighted Wednesday night in a rally “against impunity and the lack of justice”.

The demonstration held in the Plaza de los Dos Congresos, in front of the legislature, was organised by a group called Families and Friends of Victims of the Attack, and backed by leaders of the local Jewish community, Latin America’s largest.

Luis Czyzewsky, the father of a young woman killed in the blast, said the victims “died all over again” when the court acquitted the suspected accessories to the attack despite the fact that, in his view, there was “sufficient uncontaminated evidence” for a conviction.

But Active Memory, the first group of victims’ relatives created after the tragedy, refused to participate in Wednesday’s rally, saying its members had argued for years that the state was chiefly responsible for the lack of justice in the case, as last week’s verdict made clear, and that the detainees had not been submitted to a fair trial.

In a conversation with IPS, the president of Active Memory, Adriana Reisfeld, said that “despite the pain” caused by the legal decision, it was an “expected” end to the trial.

She also said her group “agrees with the need to annul the entire investigation due to the huge number of irregularities that were committed.”

Reisfeld said the three-judge federal oral court “performed well, attending all of the sessions without delegating anyone else to do so for three years, and following the testimony closely” before handing down its verdict.

“This could even be a step forward by the justice system, marking the route towards what should be done,” said Reisfeld, who lost a sister in the AMIA bombing, the worst terrorist attack in Argentine history.

Out of conviction that the investigation was seriously flawed, Active Memory filed a complaint in July 1999 with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which forms part of the Organisation of American States (OAS).

As a result, the three-year oral trial was followed by an OAS monitor, whose report will be released after the complete version of the federal court’s sentence is issued on Oct. 29, said Reisfeld.

Justice Minister Horacio Rosatti said Thursday that the court verdict was “very brave,” and should be considered “a starting-point, rather than the end” of the road in finding out the truth.

“It takes great courage to expose the irregularities” that marred the investigation, he added.

The government “will deepen the investigation, so that the officials involved in covering up the truth will receive the appropriate punishment,” said Rosatti.

In their legal decision, the three members of the federal court recommended probes of Judge Juan José Galeano, who handled the preliminary investigation of the case until he was removed due to irregularities, and the prosecutors who worked with him.

The judges also ordered investigations of former cabinet ministers of the government of Carlos Menem (1989-1999), other officials, lawmakers, a police chief, intelligence agents, and even Jewish community lawyers and leaders implicated in the cover-up.

Without specifically mentioning former president Menem, the judges said Galeano built “an incriminatory case aimed at addressing society’s natural demands (for justice) and the dark interests of unscrupulous government leaders.”

The investigation of the case was headed by federal Judge Galeano and prosecutors Eamon Mullen and José Barbaccia, all of whom have been accused of a long list of irregularities allegedly committed to build up an argument that in the oral phase of the trial was proven to be false.

In a parallel probe, Galeano also investigated the “international connection” in the attack. But although arrest warrants were issued for former Iranian diplomats, no progress has been made in that crucial aspect of the case.

The investigation of the alleged local accomplices, meanwhile, led to the arrest of the five suspects released last week, and to the prosecution of 17 others in the oral trial that began three years ago. All 22 of them were acquitted on Sep. 2.

One of the five detainees, Carlos Telleldín, the mechanic accused of equipping the van used as a car-bomb, spent 10 years in prison.

In the trial it came out that he had been paid 400,000 dollars from the State Intelligence Secretariat (SIDE) to testify that four former police officers had been given the van and delivered it to the “material authors” of the bombing. Judge Galeano was found to be directly involved in the payment received by Telleldín.

The four former Buenos Aires provincial police officers – Juan José Ribelli, Anastasio Leal, Raúl Ibarra and Mario Bareiro – were also in prison until last week, accused of acting as accessories in the attack.

While some of the victims’ families accused the court of allowing the accomplices to go unpunished, others said the sentence was appropriate because the entire case was based on lies. They also said the judges were brave for pointing a finger at the institutions of the state.

The centre-left government of President Néstor Kirchner is now studying the possibility of setting up an independent commission to investigate the bombing.

In Wednesday’s rally, Families and Friends of Victims of the Attack said such a commission should have the support of a special prosecutor’s office that would be exclusively dedicated to the case.

However, Active Memory disagreed on that point as well, arguing that ad hoc bodies should not be created for the case, but that the country’s existing institutions should be made to function properly and in an impartial manner.

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