Argentina’s investigation of the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires has seen many twists, including the Jan. 18 mysterious death of Alberto Nisman, the case’s special prosecutor, the day before he was to testify to Congress, and a secret video found in 1997 revealing that the investigating judge offered a $400,000 bribe to a suspect in exchange for the incrimination of several provincial police officers.
But it is only this month, on Aug. 6, that the trial of those accused in the government-sponsored cover-up of the investigation began. All three branches of government are represented among the 13 accused, including a former Argentine president, former members of the national intelligence service, the impeached investigating judge, and a former Jewish community leader.
“There were a lot of people who didn’t want this trial to happen because it’s a trial that bothers different [judicial] sectors, and that impacted the delay,” said Luciano Hazan, an attorney representing the executive branch in the trial, describing how many judges excused themselves from participating because of their friendships with the accused. “The ones who are sitting on the bench are their friends, their colleagues.”
Argentine journalist Raul Kollman, who has closely covered the investigation, agreed.
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“This trial prosecutes the judiciary, so it’s very delicate,” he said. “It’s also a country where the judicial branch does not investigate itself, and it’s tremendously slow to investigate the government.”
Despite the 21 years that have passed, no one has been convicted of the car bombing that left 85 dead and reduced the Jewish community center to rubble. The attack occurred two years after the also unresolved bombing of the Israeli embassy 20 blocks away that killed 29 people. Today, most Jewish institutions have cement barriers at their entrances, and thousands attend rallies every July to commemorate the bombing and to demand justice.
The cover-up trial, which is expected to begin opening arguments Sept. 3, involves two groups of defendants accused of diverting the investigation, in one case resulting in the abandonment of an early lead pointing to Syria, and in another case, the fabrication of evidence for the “local” lead through a bribe to a detained suspect.
In the Syria trial’s cover-up, the prosecution holds that then-investigating judge José Galeano halted the investigation of Alberto Kanoore Edul, an Argentine of Syrian descent detained for having made phone calls days before the attack to Carlos Telleldin, a mechanic who had sold the van used in the bombing. Edul also had the number for the cultural attaché for the Iranian embassy in Argentina, another suspect, in his phone contacts.
Galeano ordered the interception of Edul’s phone calls, as well as three raids of his family’s properties. But then things became odd.
“That [first] raid was delayed multiple hours,” Kollman said. “There are two calls to Kanoore Edul from the [police] commissioner — it’s supposed this was to warn him that they were going to call [for the raid]. Kanoore Edul’s father went to the presidential house and met with Muir Menem (the brother of the president), who allegedly called Galeano to instruct him to stop investigating Edul. Only one of the three raids was made, and very little is produced.”
Galeano dropped the lead, and records of Edul’s phone conversations disappear.
“When they [the Jewish community] see that in the early days of the bombing there were very firm leads and it was a political decision not to follow them, this sense of impunity grows,” said Ariel Gelblung, the Latin American representative of the Simon Wiesenthal Center who is based in Argentina.
Another group of defendants is charged with participating in the bribe given to Telleldin, today among the accused, with funds from the now defunct national intelligence service. Both Telleldin and the police officers he implicated were in jail while an inquiry into the bribe was opened, and in 2004, all the accused in the “local connection” were acquitted based on irregularities in the investigation.
In 2005, Galeano was impeached as a result of the secret bribe video.
“It was a false declaration given for political reasons, to give society a culprit and try to hold the police responsible, a police that was very corrupt at the time,” Kollman said.
He added that Ruben Beraja, a former Jewish community leader who is charged with having known about the bribe, may have had a conflict of interest in the case as head of the Jewish community and former president of the Banco de Mayo, a bank that “depended heavily on the government.”
Investigations into the cover-up began in 2000 and were taken over by a new judge in 2005, who ordered the defendants to stand trial in 2011.
Alejandro Carrio, a well-known criminal lawyer in Buenos Aires, said that delays in the Argentine judicial system are often caused by the many opportunities that the defendants’ lawyers have to present appeals even before a case goes to trial. He said that often, tired lawyers will quit a case, creating more delays as new lawyers seek extensions.
“The Argentine system is exasperating,” Carrio said. “A trial is something no one wants — the defense doesn’t want it nor the judge, because it takes up a lot of time. The system permits delays, and the judges aren’t firm enough to reject them.”
Family members of the victims are not all optimistic. Some believe that the trial itself already contains flaws. Pablo Gitter of APEMIA, a group of relatives and friends of the victims, denounced the trial for not formally recognizing an “illicit association,” or conspiracy, among the defendants, saying “that speaks to the limits of the trial.”
However, Hernan Gullco, president of the Association for Civil Rights, a Buenos Aires non-profit, said that unlike in the United States, identifying a conspiracy is a legal recourse that is much more limited in Argentine courts.
“You have to prove something stronger than a conspiracy — you have to prove that there was a criminal organization with certain permanency,” he said. “We don’t speak about a conspiracy because in the majority of crimes, it doesn’t exist.”
Former President Carlos Menem, 85, currently a senator, has not been present in court due to claims of poor health, which is under investigation. Even if the judge decides that Menem is healthy enough to appear, as a senator, he may not be forced to show up. He’s accused of ordering Galeano to abandon the Syrian trail of the investigation.
“The government protects him — this protection is contradictory to the government that has pushed for this trial,” Gitter said. “It’s all political propaganda.”
Sofia Guterman, whose daughter was killed in the bombing, says she tries to remain positive but that it’s difficult.
“It’s important that we be able to reach the truth, to know if they really are accessories in a cover-up, what they covered up, whose orders they followed and why,” she said. “I don’t know if we will find out because for 21 years, we’ve been suffering lies and there is impunity. We hope for a miracle.”