JTA / March 1, 2005
By Larry Luxner
BUENOS AIRES — More than 10 years after the headquarters of Argentina's largest Jewish organization was ripped apart by a car-bomb, the Argentine government has agreed to admit that it not only mishandled its initial investigation into the terrorist attack, but covered up and may have even destroyed key evidence in the case.
This Monday, Foreign Minister Rafael Bielsa, Justice Minister Horacio Rosatti and other top officials designated by President Nestor Kirchner will travel to Washington, where on Mar. 4 they are expected to testify before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (OAS).
On Mar. 3, one day before the OAS hearing, Kirchner will personally deliver top-secret files from SIDE — Argentina's equivalent of the CIA — to prosecutors Alberto Nisman and Marcelo Martínez Burgos, in a ceremony at the Casa de Gobierno in downtown Buenos Aires. The files supposedly contain evidence that has never been seen before by prosecutors attempting to get to the bottom of the July 1994 bombing of the AMIA headquarters, in which 85 people died and hundreds more were injured.
"This is unprecedented," AMIA President Avraham Kaul said Friday. "This is the first time in history that any country will declare itself guilty for not having investigated a terrorist attack properly. They're also going to blame the ex-president for covering up."
According to sources interviewed by JTA, the officials will acknowledge that the previous government of Carlos Menem botched the probe. In so doing, Kirchner hopes to differentiate himself from Menem, who categorically denied all accusations that its investigation was a farce of justice.
As such, the Kirchner government has established a "Unidad Especial de Investigación del Atentado contra la AMIA," or special unit, headed by Alejandro Rúa of the Ministry of Justice. This will open up the way for eventual compensation for victims and their families.
Nevertheless, says Kaul, "there's a lot of skepticism in the Jewish community. The people don't believe in anything. Many feel that they'll never find those responsible for the attack."
That skepticism arises from a series of blunders — some intentional, some not — that have been associated with the probe since the very beginning.
In September, after a three-year trial, five police officers were freed after the court determined that they were not involved in the AMIA bombing, and that the evidence against them had been illegally obtained by Judge Juan José Galeano, who was suspended from his duties as a magistrate and now faces a trial of his own.
"The police had nothing to do with it," said Kaul, who is convinced of an Iranian and/or Syrian connection.
Separately, Kaul and other Jewish leaders were outraged when, last October, Interpol suspended its search for 12 Iranian suspects believed to be linked to the bombing — even though the Argentine government had specifically requested their capture.
"Interpol said there wasn't sufficient proof, that it was all a lie, so AMIA denounced the fact that Interpol had stopped looking for them," said Kaul, interviewed at the office of the travel agency which he owns. "Last week, I told reporters that the Foreign Ministry wasn't making much of an effort to look for the Iranians, so Bielsa told Pagina 12 [an influential Buenos Aires daily] that I tell lies and that I do it only to appear in the newspapers."
Investigators are pursuing more than a dozen lines of investigation, including possible links to alleged Hezbollah terrorist cells in the notorious "Triple Frontier" area where Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay meet. Another hypothesis concerns Mohsen Rabbani, cultural attache at the Iranian Embassy in Buenos Aires, and Samuel el-Rida, a Colombian convert to Islam who was married to Rabbani's private secretary.
"I agree more with the idea that people from the Iranian Embassy were responsible, along with other people in Argentina," said Kaul. "They were involved not only in the AMIA attack, but also the attack against the Israeli Embassy [in 1992]."
Prosecutor Burgos, who along with Nisman is acting as an independent prosecutor in the case, said the Triple Frontier theory "is only one of the lines of investigation" being pursued by his office.
"For more than 10 years, a series of irregularities was committed that finally culminated in an oral trial in which the court found that things were done wrong, evidence was planted and people who had nothing to do with the attack were blamed," he said. "We answer to the judicial branch, and Rua answers to the executive branch. We understand that under Argentina's national constitution, the only ones who should be in control of this investigation are us."
Pablo Jacoby, a Buenos Aires lawyer who represents the Memoria Activa victims' association, first brought the case before the OAS in 1998, along with fellow attorney Alberto Zuppy.
"We went to an outside forum because we could see that the case was going nowhere with the Menem government," said Jacoby, who took over as principal lawyer for Memoria Activa after Zuppy left Argentina in 2002. "In succeeding governments, there was little change in the investigation, so we have continually pursued the case. The OAS in fact had an observer during each session of the entire three-year AMIA trial.
"We do note a change in the Kirchner government. They have responded slowly but positively to a number of our requests," he told JTA. "However, I still say we'll have to take a wait-and-see attitude to the form in which the government makes its mea culpa to the commission. We are hopeful, but I think it's too early to say that we'll drop our official presentation before the OAS."
According to local media, the Argentine government is said to be considering a total revamping of the national security services in order to prevent new terrorist attacks, as well as compensation of victims and their families under a new law to be called "Ley de Victimas de la AMIA."