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ARGENTINA: &#39Irrefutable Evidence&#39 Against Iran in AMIA Case

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Nov 29 2006 (IPS) - Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman says he has irrefutable evidence that backs the international arrest warrants issued at his request for a former Iranian president and eight other former government officials, who are wanted in connection with the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires.

As chief prosecutor in the country&#39s federal oral courts since 1997, Nisman has been closely involved in the investigation of the destruction of the AMIA (Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina) building, in which 85 people were killed and 300 injured.

In 2000, he began to work exclusively on the investigation of the AMIA case, in which former Argentine police officers and one civilian were prosecuted. However, the trial was annulled in 2004 due to serious irregularities.

But Nisman&#39s performance in the case involving the so-called "local connection" in the car bombing led to his designation that year as the head of a new special unit set up to investigate the case.

Shortly after the Argentine court issued the arrest warrants for the former Iranian officials, Iran threatened to issue its own warrants for the arrest of Nisman and Judge Rodolfo Canicoba Corral

A few days later, an anonymous voice warned him over the phone that if the investigation continued, he and his family would be "blown up."

"We know there are too many people who would like to see a death certificate for the AMIA case," Nisman said in an exclusive interview with IPS.

IPS: Is there any precedent for the arrest warrants against former Iranian officials and leaders who were in office at the time of the car bomb attack on AMIA?

ALBERTO NISMAN: In the investigation of the 1992 assassination (of Iranian dissidents) in the Mykonos restaurant in Germany, prosecutors from that country sought the arrest of former Iranian president (Akbar Hashemi) Rafsanjani (1989-1997) and Ayatollah Ali Khameini. Although the judge did not sustain the petition, it was based on arguments and interpretations similar to ours.

The same thing occurred with the 1995 terrorist attack on a bus (in the Gaza Strip in the Palestinian territories) in which U.S. student Alisa Flatow was killed. A U.S. court found that Khameini, Rafsanjani and (former intelligence minister Ali) Fallahian had provided material support to the organisation (the Palestinian Islamic Jihad) that carried out the attack.

In addition, an arrest warrant was issued for Fallahian in the case of the 1990 murder of Iranian dissident Kazem Rajavi in Switzerland.

But above and beyond that, courts in foreign countries have reached the conclusion that the Iranian regime&#39s decision-making for carrying out terrorist actions followed the same steps that we believe have been proven in the AMIA case.

IPS: Given the irregularities committed by former Argentine judge Juan José Galeano in the AMIA investigation, which led to the annulment of the trial, are you aware that the justice system must win the confidence and trust of a very sceptical public?

AN: The mistrust and lack of confidence are absolutely understandable. Fighting the suspicions, mistrust and doubts is part of our job. But the threshold of proof in the AMIA case is the same as for any other case, and must transcend public opinion.

IPS: Is it true, as critics say, that the decision to order arrest warrants is largely based on the witness testimony given by Abolghasem Mesbahi, a former Iranian intelligence officer who is considered unreliable, and on the testimony of dissidents?

AN: Our decision is based on a multiplicity of statements, migration records, back-and-forth phone calls, and reports by public and private bodies

The testimony from Mesbahi, the co-founder of Iran&#39s intelligence service, is very consistent, and we are not the only ones to reach that conclusion. The German court in the Mykonos case underscored the value of his testimony, and the court in Argentina found it to be "clear, precise, conclusive and without gaps."

Other statements that were extremely important came from Abolhassan Banisadr, elected as the first president of Iran in 1980 under the regime of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini; a former diplomat under the Khomeini regime, Ali Reza Ahmadi; and representatives of opposition groups like the People&#39s Mujahadeen or Flag of Freedom.

What is significant about these testimonies is that they come from people at opposite ends of the political spectrum, from left to right. This is extremely important because even in their diversity, they coincide with respect to how these decisions were reached.

There is also evidence that has emerged from the meticulous tracing of banking operationsàand from interviews of our own. To identify the suicide driver, Ibrahim Berro (a Lebanese man belonging to the pro-Iranian Hezbollah militia), the depositions we took from his brothers were essential.

We traced the nuclear technology transfer link between Argentina and Iran through a series of testimonies and reports from the corresponding public agencies.

Summing all of these sources up as "only dissidents" is either an error or a purposeful distortion.

IPS: Do you believe it is acceptable to continue to rely on elements obtained by a judge like Galeano, who was removed from his post due to irregularities?

AN: There are big differences with respect to Galeano&#39s assessment. While the former judge only insinuated that Hezbollah was involved and blamed the attack on "radical elements" in the Iranian regime, we argue that the Lebanese organisation was commissioned to carry out the attack by the highest authorities in Iran. And this was a result of our examination of existing elements and the incorporation of new evidence.

The problem is that there are too many people who would like to see a death certificate for the AMIA case. The argument they use is, "since some of the proof was annulled, all of the evidence should be thrown out." But that&#39s foolish. We are sure that valid evidence can be sifted out, in order to conduct a serious investigation. Our decision and report formed part of that sifting process.

It is only logical that we would use evidence collected by the former prosecutors and judge. We&#39re talking about a case that has involved 12 years of investigation, which means it would be absurd to say that none of it should be used.

And with regard to the evidence itself, its validity should not be judged based on who was handling the case, but by its content, source and credibility. Proof is or is not valid in and of itself, regardless of who is handling the case.

IPS: When terrorist crimes are investigated, is the weight of the evidence the same?

AN: We have to be very careful with this question. The threshold of proof required by law in Argentina is the same for any kind of crime. It&#39s not a question of requiring less proof, or indirect proof, in cases involving terrorismàThe problem is that it is more difficult to prove who was responsible for acts of terrorism, because of their complexity.

That&#39s why the analysis must be comprehensive, rather than trying to see every isolated fact as conclusive evidence that can stand on its own. It&#39s about making comparisons, proving facts and deducting other facts from them, which on their own do not represent a crime, and only make sense in the context of the interpretation.

IPS: You and your team see the motive for the attack as the cancellation of the nuclear cooperation accords by Argentina, but one was left standing. It seems out of all proportion for such a reprisal to be taken by Iran, if the assistance continued.

AN: There was a key difference between the first contract and the following two. The first had the aim of reducing the capacity to produce enriched uranium for proliferation purposes. The same cannot be said about the other two.

In 1991 the agreements were suspended, and in 1992 they were completely cancelled. That is when negotiations began, to get Argentina to change its mind, but it stood firm, and because of that it all ended in a lawsuit against the contractor company, which was settled out of court in 1997.

The negotiations after the cancellation were all marked by the pressure to restore the bilateral agreements.

Besides, that rupture occurred in the context of Argentina&#39s realignment on the international scene. The foreign ministry had orders to align itself with the United States and to forge closer ties with Israel, two of Iran&#39s declared enemies.

For us, the nuclear question was the "decisive factor" in the attack, but the regional context also played a role.

In our report, we outline in detail questions linked to the peace process in the Middle East, a possible solution to the Palestinian problem, Iran&#39s political isolation in that context, and events that facilitated Hezbollah&#39s mobilisation in line with Iranian objectives.

IPS: Can the content of the 1993 meeting in the northeastern Iranian town of Mashad, where the AMIA attack was supposedly planned, be considered to be proven by the similarity of testimony from people who were not there? There are suspicions that these testimonies may have been prepared by the intelligence services of the United States and Israel.

AN: The existence of a committee that reached those decisions did not just occur to our unit of prosecutors. In the Mykonos case, it was proven that the decision to assassinate the dissidents was reached in that context, and documents referred to in the Rajavi case indicate the same thing.

We have testimony from several people who held high positions in the government saying the decision was reached that way. Banisadr, Mesbahi and Ahmadi basically said the same thing, as did several other people, from both leftwing and rightwing groups, all of whom concurred with respect to how the decision was taken.

The people I mention had firsthand knowledge of the mechanism used by the regime to plan terrorist operations abroad. The testimony also indicated that two Iranian officials posted in Argentina, (former Iranian Embassy official in Buenos Aires, Ahmad Reza) Asgari and former cultural attaché Moshen Rabbani, were also invited to the meeting.

We verified that these people were not in Argentina at the time of the meeting, and that a series of events that were a consequence of the orders that emerged from the meeting occurred on their return, further proving the existence of the meeting.

Rabbani returned from Iran and opened the account in which 150,000 dollars were deposited. The authorities in Iran furnished him with diplomatic immunity – even though he had been in the country for nine years – and he bought a cell-phone and received a heavy flow of diplomatic email linked to the Iranian intelligence apparatus.

Basically, none of what happened in Buenos Aires can be explained without the existence of that meeting. The pieces fit perfectly.

IPS: There are some who say the court decision was the product of pressure on Argentina from the United States and Israel, at a time when Washington needs arguments against Tehran to get it to bring its nuclear programme to a halt.

AN: This surprises us. Some even say it is based "exclusively" on information from them. But throughout our report backing the ruling there is not one single reference to reports from the CIA (the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency) or Mossad (the Israeli secret service). All 800 pages are full of quotes from witness testimony, reports by public and private bodies, bank records, phone callsà

The intelligence information we used came from the Argentine services, and is quoted only in the case of information that was corroborated by our evidence.

The thing is, there is a great deal of speculation on the political consequences of our report, or on whose interests it serves. The question is analysed only from that angle, and everyone looks at the decision after aligning themselves behind the country of their choice.

Even in the case of the most insignificant crime, whatever the judge or prosecutors say serves either the interests of the accused or those of the victim. In our case, due to its particular characteristics, the question of whose interests are served is analysed from a foreign policy point of view. But that says absolutely nothing about the veracity of our conclusions.

The question of who benefits from or is hurt by this ruling in terms of domestic or foreign policy goes beyond our responsibility as prosecutors. Our objective is to solve the case in whatever direction the evidence points. That is where our commitment must lie; everything else is just opinions, conjecture, speculation.

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