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BUENOS AIRES, Feb 22 2013 (IPS) - An agreement between Argentina and Iran to dig deeper into a 1994 bomb attack on a Jewish community centre in this city will test the solidity of the evidence garnered by a judicial investigation that has ground to a halt because of lack of cooperation from Tehran.
A memorandum of understanding between the two countries, to be debated in the lower chamber of Congress after being approved Thursday by a narrow margin in the senate, would allow Iranian citizens suspected of participating in the attack to be interrogated in their country by Argentine federal justice officials.
If the memorandum is approved, it will not be the first time that Argentine judges travel abroad to investigate suspects who cannot be extradited. But this case, under Judge Rodolfo Canicoba Corral, is in need of guarantees to avoid the desired shortcut to end impunity from turning into a cul-de-sac.
The agreement awaiting ratification by the Argentine parliament also provides for the creation of a truth commission made up of international legal experts, who will rule on the legitimacy of the judicial process, although their conclusions will not be binding.
Investigations carried out so far by the Argentine justice system indicate that the attack on the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA, Israeli-Argentine Mutual Aid Association), which destroyed the centre, killing 85 people and injuring over 300, may have been planned by officials and diplomats in Tehran and carried out by a member of the Lebanese Shi’ite group Hezbollah (Party of God) acting with Iranian funding.
In November 2007 the Interpol General Assembly issued a “red notice” international arrest warrant requested by Argentina for Iranian citizens Ali Fallahian, Mohsen Rezai, Ahmad Vahidi, Mohsen Rabbani and Ahmad Reza Asghari. Lebanese citizen Imad Fayez Mughniyah, killed in Syria in 2008, is also wanted.
Vahidi is the current minister of defence in Iran, and Rezai is a presidential candidate in the forthcoming June elections.
Iran has persistently refused to extradite those accused. It also refused a previous Argentine proposal to hold a trial in a third country, after the example of Libyans accused of planning the bomb explosion aboard a passenger airplane belonging to former U.S. airline Pan Am over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, who were tried in a court in the Netherlands.
Given the lack of cooperation from Iran, repeatedly denounced by Argentina in successive United Nations general assemblies, the centre-left government of President Cristina Fernández came to this bilateral agreement.
Fernández, who sent the initiative to Congress on Feb. 8, said the memorandum is “a very important step to unblock a case that was absolutely immobilised, without any possibility of interrogating the accused by Argentine justice.”
The pact is rejected by most opposition parties and by some Jewish community organisations in Argentina, who fear a trap on the part of Iran that would claw back what little advances have been made in justice. But relatives of the victims and Amnesty International applauded the road now taken by Buenos Aires.
Human rights watchdog Amnesty International, based in London, said in a communiqué issued Thursday that the memorandum “creates an opportunity to move forward towards justice and reparations for the victims of the attack on AMIA.”
Both Iran and Argentina must guarantee that the rules of procedure of the Truth Commission are made public and comply with international standards, it said.
The most controversial chapter of the agreement, in the view of the opposition, is the creation of a Truth Commission made up of five legal experts, from countries other than Iran and Argentina, that will scrutinise the evidence in the investigation against the accused, and will issue rulings, although these will not be binding.
“There are precedents for Argentine judges travelling abroad to carry out investigations, but this is not just another case, because here there will be a commission to rule on whether the evidence collected by Argentine justice is relevant or not,” lawyer and academic Guillermo Jorge, a professor at the private University of San Andrés, told IPS.
“Argentina is playing its last card. I see no alternative to this way forward in the case,” said Jorge, the director of the Centre for Transparency and Corruption Control at his university, where proposals for international judicial assistance for clarifying crimes involving more than one country are created and studied.
The legal expert recalled the case of the 1974 attack in which former Chilean army commander Carlos Prats and his wife, Sofia Cuthbert, were killed. Judge María Servini, in charge of that investigation, travelled abroad to collect evidence and question the accused in that crime.
Servini’s work in Chile and the United States contributed to proving that the attack was ordered by secret police agents of the Chilean dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990) and carried out by U.S. agent Michael Townley, as he himself confessed as a protected witness in his country.
Recently, judge Ariel Lijo travelled to Germany to collect evidence in a case against executives of the transnational company Siemens, accused of paying bribes to Argentine officials to obtain a billion-dollar contract for manufacturing identity documents in 1998.
On the basis of the information gathered in a wider investigation carried out by the German justice system on bribery undertaken by Siemens in different countries, Lijo requested the arrest of a group of executives of the company. Germany refused their extradition, but judge Lijo is preparing to travel there to question the suspects.
According to Jorge, the controversy in the case of the attack on AMIA arose because although the Argentine justice system considers the evidence accumulated in the investigation to be sufficient to justify interrogating the suspects, in the view of Iran it is weak and insufficient.
The Iranian government maintains that the evidence is based on intelligence reports from other countries and the testimony of allegedly repentant criminals; hence the refusal of the extradition requests. However, it has accepted the memorandum, which introduces a new actor in the controversy, that is, the Truth Commission.
“Although Argentine judges can disregard its conclusions, the commission of experts can rule that the evidence is sufficient and sound, and that will carry political weight. Later on, a court will assess the testimony and decide whether or not to proceed. It will be an advance in terms of the prosecutions,” Jorge said.
The other possible scenario, he said, is that the commission rejects the evidence. “Some legal experts dislike evidence based on intelligence reports answering to political interests,” Jorge said. Argentina has a precedent that does not work in its favour, he said.
In 2003, one of the Iranian suspects, Hadi Soleimanpour, was detained at the University of Durham in the United Kingdom on an Interpol warrant for his arrest pending extradition to Argentina. He was a former ambassador for his country in Buenos Aires at the time of the AMIA attack.
But after analysing the Argentine case against him, Soleimanpour was freed by British justice due to lack of evidence about his participation in the attack, according to the presiding judge. Iran claims this is proof of impropriety in the prosecution’s case.
Interpol stopped pursuing the diplomat after his brief detention and appearance before a London court.
However, Argentina argues that there have been great strides in evidence collection since then. Furthermore, the judge formerly in charge of the case was Juan José Galeano, who was dismissed from his post in 2005 because of serious irregularities committed in the investigation of the attack’s “local connection.”
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