Bombing Case Against Iranians in Doubt

By Marc Perelman

Published September 17, 2004, issue of September 17, 2004.

With the collapse of Argentina’s investigation into the so-called “local connection” of a deadly 1994 Jewish community center bombing, following the acquittal this month of five men charged with aiding the attack, the fate of an indictment against Hezbollah and radical elements of the Iranian government remains uncertain.

The indictment against the Iranians and their allies was handed down in March 2003 by investigative judge Juan Jose Galeano. He was dismissed from the investigation earlier this year on suspicion of bribing a key witness, angering many who viewed him as an advocate for pursuing the case.

The center was blown up by a car bomb in July 1994, killing 85 people and injuring 300 in the deadliest anti-Jewish attack since World War II. None of the planners or perpetrators has been apprehended. The five men acquitted September 2, four police offers and a car dealer, were accused of providing the bombers’ van.

The chief prosecutor and several Jewish groups told Argentine media they will likely appeal the verdict.

While most attention has been focused on the verdict in the three-year trial and the ensuing protests, the Argentine government has asked the new judge in charge of the investigation, Rodolfo Canicoba Corral, to look again into allegations that former president Carlos Menem received money from Iran to divert the investigation. The allegations were made to Argentine investigators in 2000 by a former high-ranking Iranian intelligence official, Abolghasem Mesbahi, a key witness in the case against Iran.

Menem has denied the charge. A Swiss magistrate, Christine Junod, officially told Argentine officials in mid-July that she was closing her investigation after finding no evidence of such a payment.

However, following an article last month by Geneva-based investigative reporter Juan Gasparini alleging flaws in the Swiss inquiry, the Argentine Justice Ministry asked Corral in late August to submit a new request.

According to a transcript of an April 2003 German interrogation of the Iranian defector, as well as two ensuing Swiss police reports, Mesbahi told investigators that in late 1994 or early 1995, an alleged Menem envoy asked for $10 million to exculpate Tehran.

Until then, reports had claimed that Iran, hoping to shield its role, had made the offer to a Menem envoy.

Mesbahi said that while his conversations at the time with other Iranian officials led him to believe the payment was eventually made, he had no direct knowledge of whether it was indeed made.

In justifying her decision to end the Swiss investigation, Judge Junod said that a bank in Geneva — designated by Mesbahi as having housed a numbered account that was used by Iranian intelligence to finance terrorist attacks in Europe in the late 1980s and possibly to pay Menem in 1995 — had in fact opened shop only in 1996.

However, the Argentine Justice Ministry request notes that the bank, Degroof-Luxembourg SA, apparently had been operating in Switzerland since 1987, making it possible that it was indeed used as Mesbahi claimed. For that reason, Argentina asked the judge to insist that Mesbahi, who lives in Germany, be brought to Geneva to identify the bank formally, a step that has been delayed repeatedly for procedural reasons.



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