Argentina’s frustrating road to justice

by and

NEW YORK — The recent acquittal of 22 individuals by an Argentine Federal Court in the bombing of a Jewish Center in Buenos Aires dismayed many in Argentina’s Jewish community. The decision was received as evidence of the government’s lack of interest in solving Argentina’s worst act of terrorism. Paradoxically, although the decision does nothing to help solve the crime, it may prove to be a first step in establishing true justice in Argentina.

In July 1994, a powerful bomb destroyed a seven-story building in Buenos Aires housing the Argentine Israelite Mutual Aid Association (AMIA) and the Delegation of Argentine Jewish Associations. The blast killed 85 people and wounded more than 300. The bombing was strikingly similar to one two years ago that destroyed the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 29 people.

A series of findings and interviews with several informers led Israeli and American intelligence agencies to conclude that both bombings had been carried out by terrorists linked to the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, probably acting under instructions from Tehran. Newly disclosed documents suggest that members of Argentina’s own government and police force knew of the bombing plan for the Israeli Embassy. Reportedly, the Iranian government paid former Argentine President Carlos Menem $10 million to downplay Iran’s responsibility in the attack.

The official who supervised the AMIA investigation for eight years, Federal Judge Juan Jose Galeano, implicated one civilian and several senior police officers of Buenos Aires Province. Charges against the suspects rested on the handling of the van carrying the bomb used in the attack.

Despite years of investigation and meetings with several informers, both in and outside Argentina, Galeano was unable to find compelling evidence against any of the suspects. According to Galeano, the Buenos Aires police sabotaged his investigation to protect themselves. Yet, members of the group Memoria Activa, founded by survivors and relatives of the victims of the AMIA bombing, characterized Galeano’s actions as an obstruction of the investigation.

According to Memoria Activa, Galeano planted fake leads in support of an “official version” of the attack in which the police officers under investigation handed the van to the terrorists. However, a video tape recording of a conversation between Galeano and one of the accused civilians showed the judge offering the suspect a substantial amount of money if he would implicate the police officers in the attack.

In what was called “a tragedy of errors,” the prosecution’s case turned into a slippery net of mislaid clues where witnesses disappeared, crucial evidence was lost and taped interviews with crucial witnesses and informers were stolen from police and intelligence agency safes.

The lack of clear-cut evidence against any of the suspects makes their recent acquittal, after more than eight years in prison, an inevitable and fair judicial response, painful as the outcome is for the victims’ relatives. Galeano submitted his resignation under the weight of the evidence against him, and is currently under impeachment by Argentina’s Judicial Council.

What is urgently needed now is to set up an independent commission with full authority to investigate these brutal acts and to find those responsible for obstructing the search for the truth. Because of the international connections in the case, solving it may provide further clues about the workings of global terrorism. If Argentina wants to establish a credible justice system, solving the AMIA and the Israeli Embassy bombings in Buenos Aires is a critical step.