On Aug. 6 begun the much-awaited trial for the cover-up in the 1994 attack on AMIA, the main Jewish community center of Argentina that left 85 people dead. After 21 years, no one was ever convicted and little is known about the actual perpetrators. The investigation was continuously hindered. Argentina came to accuse the Iranian government on information provided by the CIA, but the accused never appeared in court. The scale of the attack suggests that there must have been local accomplices.
But Argentina has been unable to produce any reliable information about these either. The case ended up in such colossal failure due to maneuvers of a group of people who deliberately misled the investigation by planting false clues and by putting pressure on state officials to disregard significant facts. This new trial is not about the attack on AMIA itself, but about those who participated in the later maneuvering towards impunity.
The indictment points to Carlos Menem, Argentina’s president from 1989 to 1999. There is evidence that, from day one after the bombing, Menem agreed with the U.S. and Israel to blame Iran. For the U.S. and Israel, it was of an obvious geopolitical interest. For Menem, whose international policy was defined as one of “carnal relations” (sic) with the U.S., it was not only a matter of pleasing his friends, but also of covering up his past. Indeed, some of the hints of the initial investigation pointed to the Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad, who had financed Menem’s campaign (Menem is from a Syrian family) and was by then deeply disappointed with his foreign policy and with other promises that he had not kept.
Among those hints there were the suspicious movements of Alberto Kanoore Edul, an Argentine citizen of Syrian descent, who was in contact with Carlos Telleldín, the man who allegedly sold the van bomb that was used in the attack. The first judge in charge of the case, Juan José Galeano, initially pointed to Kanoore Edul, but soon discovered that he was under the protection of Menem. When the judge ordered to search his house, the police let Kanoore know in advance so he could conceal any delicate evidence. Following a meeting between Kanoole and the president’s brother, he and the Syrian lead were no longer questioned (Galeano proved to be very diligent in taking Menem’s interests into account). Galeano and Menem are now under trial for this manipulation of the investigation. A number of Menem’s top officials are also accused for the same offense, including his chief of Intelligence and two chiefs of the Federal Police.
In addition, Menem and his associates also invented a false “local connection” for the Iranians, so as to placate demands for justice. By paying Carlos Telledín U$400.000, they got him to say that he had sold his van to a bunch of policemen of the Province of Buenos Aires. Galeano himself cut the deal with Telleldín. So, in 1999 the three federal prosecutors in charge of the case endorsed the accusation against the policemen, knowing that they were inculpating innocent people. Of those three prosecutors, two – Eamon Mullen and José Barbaccia – are now on trial. The third is none other than Alberto Nisman, who gained international notoriety in January this year when he was found dead in his apartment in still unclear circumstances.
We know about all this thanks to a whistleblower, Claudio Lifschitz, a clerk in Galeano’s office, who made it public in 2000. His revelations included another awkward fact. Rubén Beraja, the head of the main association of the Jewish community, was part of the plot. As head of DAIA – an association that has been primarily concerned with promoting Israel’s interests – Beraja offered political support for the manoeuvre and personally met with some of its architects. Some of the members of the bicameral committee established in congress to follow the case were also aware of the deal offered to Telleldín and said nothing. In other words, all three branches of government – executive, judicial and legislative – and the political representation of the Jewish community were part of the cover-up.
In 2003, Galeano was finally removed and in 2004 the “local connection” case was dismissed in court. The judges ordered a new investigation, which led to the case now under trial. The plaintiffs this time are the Argentinean state, DAIA, the policemen unduly accused by Galeano, and the three associations that represent the relatives of the victims of the 1994 bombing. While the current authorities of DAIA refuse to acknowledge that Beraja was part of the cover-up, all three associations of AMIA relatives agree that he must be held responsible. In fact, there have been discussions on whether DAIA and the Argentine state should be accepted as plaintiffs at all, as they are both also placed in the dock. True, the authorities now are not the same as in 1994. But some of the accused still have good connections with the judicial and legislative powers (to give but one example, Menem is Senator).
If convicted, the sentences for these people may range between three and 15 years. However, such a happy ending is not likely. There are good chances that this will lead to yet another disappointment. In a rather strange decision, after the 2004 scandal the investigation of the AMIA case was left in the hands of Alberto Nisman, who had not played a leading role but was nevertheless part of the initial maneuver. As prosecutor he was in charge of building the case that is now under trial. The way he presented it, what is at stake is not related to the 1994 bombing itself, but a number of “irregularities” in the ensuing investigation. Those who are accused are not considered part of a criminal plan orchestrated by the state, but rather as individuals plotting to mislead the investigation. The actual offenses that are under trial consist in putting pressure on judges and witnesses, offering bribes, disclosing secret information, and the like. As 21 years have passed since the events, some of these offences, even if proved in court, may be considered to have expired their limitation period.
The associations of relatives of the AMIA victims – the only reliable voices in this affair – are well aware of this possibility. The most optimistic envision difficult but still possible convictions. Others doubt that will happen, but nevertheless have expectations that, at least, the trial may reveal unknown facts about the bombing itself. Finally, the most pessimistic have no expectations whatsoever. They consider that the whole trial is yet another stratagem to satiate the public’s demand for justice. In their mind, it will lead to nothing, or maybe a minor conviction, but it will have the effect of concealing the role of the Argentinean state – the state as such, rather than a few rotten individuals – in the 1994 criminal act.
It will be a long trial, to be attended, as Gramsci said, with pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will.