Argentina Faces a Suit Over Probe Of Bombing

AMIA Families Demand ‘Justice’

By Noga Tarnopolsky

Published February 21, 2003, issue of February 21, 2003.
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Despairing of the criminal trial which has dragged out for more than eight years, family members of some of the 85 victims killed in the 1994 bombing of the Jewish communal center in Buenos Aires have filed a civil suit against the Republic of Argentina. The suit charges that by failing to investigate the 1992 bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires adequately, the state shirked its duty to “prevent the crime” of the later bombing in 1994, according to Betina Stein, an attorney representing 5 families.

“The state has a monopoly on security,” she said. “Knowing that such a crime was possible and warned of the possibility of a second attack, the state did not fulfill its duty to try to prevent it. The absence of a serious investigation into the 1992 bombing caused this nation to remain an interesting target.”

Mostly, Stein added, “my clients are pessimistic about their chances of achieving justice in the criminal investigation. This offers them another venue.”

Last month, the Argentine intelligence agency’s final report on the bombing of the Jewish center, known by its Spanish acronym, AMIA, was presented to Juan José Galeano, the investigative judge charged with the case. The Forward has learned that a copy of the report, which has yet to be made public, was delivered personally last week by the agency’s chief, Miguel Angel Toma, to his Israeli counterpart, Mossad head Meir Dagan.

Argentine sources familiar with the report’s contents confirm that it accuses Iran and Hezbollah of standing behind the attack, and names some former Iranian officials and emissaries as principal suspects. The accusations are based primarily on extensive interrogations of Iranian defectors now cooperating with Western governments.

It is unclear whether indictments will result, or whether, taking into account the case’s tangled history and Argentina’s Byzantine legal system, any of the suspects will be brought to trial.

A spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry who had yet to see the report said that “if reports are accurate and Hezbollah was involved in the attack, we hope these results will be expressed in reality.”

Sources close to the investigation say that, with help from the CIA, the report identifies several members of Hezbollah as suspects in the attack, including the driver of the van, a Lebanese man.

Toma’s official but clandestine visit to Israel forms part of a campaign by the Argentine intelligence service, Servicio de Inteligencia del Estado, or SIDE, to re-establish ties with other intelligence agencies that were ruptured last year after an Argentine newspaper published a photograph of the CIA station chief in Argentina. SIDE was widely held to be behind the leak.

During the last few months, Toma has visited other key countries such as the United States and Brazil. Sources familiar with his visit to Israel said the war against terrorism was the primary issue discussed.

But despite the forthcoming release of the intelligence report, many in Argentina say they are losing hope of any concrete progress being made in the case, which has languished for more than eight years.

“I don’t think there is much of a chance justice will be achieved, because I think the initial phase of the criminal investigation was not carried out with the seriousness it deserved,” Stein said.

The legal case, which focuses primarily on the “local connection” that allegedly assisted the Hezbollah operatives, has proceeded slowly for years, plagued by mishaps. About 60 tapes containing the taped conversations of a principal suspect, Carlos Alberto Telleldin, have vanished. A former police officer accused of having helped provide the truck which carried the explosives, Juan José Ribelli, was found to have initiated the investigation into his own alleged crime.

Telleldin and Ribelli, the only two suspects held, are considered by many knowledgeable observers to be small fry, relatively marginal to the case. In addition, Galeano is himself under investigation by another judge for his handling of the case.

The SIDE report focuses on the international aspects of the bombing and entirely ignores the local connection.

“We talk a lot about the international ties,” Stein said. “And they are important, but no crime of this magnitude can take place without a local network. And there is not, and I don’t think there will be, a serious approach to this.”

“The case has been rife with problems, corruption — all the problems that plague our entire judicial system have affected this case enormously,” said Alfredo Neuburger, communications director of the Delegación de Asociaciones Israelitas Argentinas, or DAIA, Argentina’s main Jewish representative body.

“You have to ask yourself what you mean by justice,” he said. “If we are asking whether this case will be resolved in its totality, I have very serious doubts. I can’t lose hope, but it would be very difficult. We do have hope that new elements may arise when we get to trial, from new testimony. We are confident new links will emerge.”

An attorney familiar with the case said: “The family members stand almost no chance of getting justice. I have no doubt that Telleldin and Ribelli deserve to live out the rest of their years in jail. But so far, they are being detained endlessly not for anything they have done, but for nitpicking over irrelevant minutiae of this case — you know, what the judge said, what the cop said — who cares? Now it is too late to pretend that a serious case can be built up. If it weren’t so tragic, it would almost be comical.”

Spirits have also been lowered by new doubts regarding the credibility of a central informant in the case, Abdolghassam Mesbahi, a former senior Iranian intelligence official known as “witness C” who is under German protection. In a May 2000 statement made in Mexico City, Mesbahi claimed former president Carlos Saúl Menem had accepted a $10 million Iranian bribe to occult Tehran’s involvement in the 1992 bombing of the Israeli embassy. The money was allegedly deposited in a Swiss bank account.

Mesbahi made a similar, albeit less precise, declaration to the judge in December.

Menem has consistently denied the charges. Mesbahi himself, in a letter sent to Toma several weeks ago, recanted his accusation — according to some sources, because he was furious over the leaking to the media of his testimony, which he felt was distorted.

Christine Junod, the Geneva magistrate investigating Menem’s Swiss bank accounts, told the Argentine journalist Juan Gasparini last week that she is limiting her investigation to the possible ties Menem funds may have to funding terrorism.

Observers expect few tangible results. “The story is disappearing,” said Gasparini, who has reported extensively on the case.

The situation, said Paul Warszawski, an eminent Argentine human rights jurist, is “a jumbled mess.”

“You know, in 1910, this was a serious country,” Warszawski said. “I can still remember it so in the early 1960s. Today, the basic problem is that nothing has seriousness. The trial may result in the conviction of Telleldin and Ribelli. So? And if someone says Menem took money to cover up a crime, you can’t try him until you prove the manner in which he covered up a crime — and no one has even begun to look into it. A tribunal may continue to investigate, but it does so knowing that SIDE will not share all the information it has. The whole thing is half-baked.”

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