At a time when Iran’s nuclear program is a top American priority, the Bush administration appears to have backed Tehran in a fight over the 1994 bombing of the Jewish community center in Argentina.
According to Argentine Jewish leaders and media reports, the United States sided with Iran last week in a secret vote to downgrade international police alerts calling for the arrest of Iranian officials wanted by Argentina for their alleged role in the 1994 bombing, which killed 85 and wounded more than 300. The vote, taken by the General Assembly of Interpol, the 182-country international police agency, canceled the top-level alert for arrest warrants issued by Argentina against 12 Iranians in 2003. Interpol’s executive committee suspended the so-called red notices last fall and recently recommended their annulment by the General Assembly, the top governing body of the agency.
The warrants remain in place, but the cancellation of the red notices means that data about the suspects will not be updated regularly, resulting in fewer police efforts to arrest them, observers said.
Cristle Humes, a spokeswoman for the U.S. national central bureau of Interpol, said the Justice Department would not comment.
The cancellation delivers yet another blow to an investigation that has all but unraveled since last fall, when a court in Argentina ordered the release of several Argentine suspects accused of abetting the attack. The court accused the investigating judge of numerous irregularities, eventually leading to his disbarment last month.
Argentine Jewish leaders and government officials were irate about Interpol’s decision because the investigation into the local aspect of the bombing has been discredited. The Argentine courts, as well as several countries, including Israel and the United States, continue to recognize an indictment issued in March 2003 against Iran and its proxy Hezbollah, and the subsequent arrest warrants against a dozen Iranian diplomats.
“We are just appalled by Interpol’s decision,” said Jorge Kirszenbaum, the head of DAIA, the central Jewish umbrella organization in Argentina. “We are particularly hurt that some countries who claim to be at the forefront of the fight against terrorism took that position.”
Both Kirszenbaum and Alfredo Neuburger, another DAIA official, said the Argentine Foreign Ministry had told them that America had sided with Iran in the vote.
The Argentine daily Clarin reported that the United States and Britain were among the 91 countries that voted in favor of the Iranian request — there were nine votes against and 15 abstentions. The report was based on a document from the Argentine government obtained by the newspaper.
A request for comment to the Argentine Foreign Ministry went unreturned. The U.S. Justice Department also did not respond to requests for comment.
Interpol initially put out the red notices in November 2003, following arrest warrants issued by Argentina. Soon after, British authorities arrested one of the Iranians wanted by Argentina only to release him a few weeks later on the grounds that the evidence supporting the warrant was not sufficient.
Iran seized on the incident to formally ask Interpol in January 2004 to cancel the red notices. The key development occurred in September of that year, when an Argentine court decided to exculpate several Argentines accused of abetting the attacks and ruled that the investigating magistrate, Juan Jose Galeano, should be removed because of numerous irregularities, most infamously for arranging a $400,000 payment to the main witness in the case.
In response to a Forward query, Interpol said in a statement that after reviewing the court’s decision and the bribing allegations, it suspended all red notices in October 2004, and asked both Iran and Argentina to present their arguments to Interpol’s 13-member Executive Committee.
The Argentine government appealed the decision, arguing that the new judge, Rodolfo Canicoba Corral, and the new prosecutors in charge of the case had upheld the arrest warrants. But the Interpol Executive Committee decided to cancel the red notices in recent weeks. Last week, the Interpol General Assembly upheld the cancellation, arguing that new warrants signed by a different judge were needed.
Marta Nercellas, a lawyer who represented Argentine Jewish organizations at the trial, said Interpol was merely an executive body that had no right to reject a judicial decision issued by a country.
Some observers noted that Canicoba Corral could still issue new warrants to convince Interpol to reinstate the red notices and said the judge was pursuing the investigation. But, as Dina Siegel Vann, director of Latino affairs at the American Jewish Committee in Washington, put it, Jewish communal officials in Argentina see Interpol’s decision as a “nearly mortal blow.”
“The investigation is in a catastrophic situation,” said Neuburger. The DAIA offical added, “This is a consequence of the failed trial and the willingness to destroy all the original investigation, including the part that was well done.”