July 20, 2000
Six Years After
Organizers continue to seek justice for the AMIA bombing.
It's a cold Monday morning in Buenos Aires and the loud moans of four shofarot sound in front of the federal courthouse. "The ancient sound of the shofar used to rally the people to listen... Today it rallies the people to demand," explains Enrique Burbinsky to a small crowd of a few dozen.
Burbinsky is a member and a regular spokesman of Memoria Activa (Active Memory), an organization formed after the July 18, 1994 car bombing of the Jewish AMIA building in Buenos Aires that injured dozens and took 86 lives. The Asociacion Mutual Israelita Argentina, or AMIA, is the local Jewish institution charged with promoting social services, assistance and education for the Jewish community.
Every Monday morning at 9:53, the time of the bombing, relatives of the victims and a handful of leaders from various Jewish institutions gather in front of the courthouse to demand justice for themselves and the dead. These weekly remembrances organized by Memoria Activa are designed to push the president and courts to find and punish those guilty of the bombing, and those guilty of hindering the investigation.
In a country where corruption is common and people often break the law with impunity, the AMIA case is a reflection of this dark side of life in Argentina. While the bombing was undeniably an anti-Semitic attack and many of the problems with the judicial investigation and process reflect the anti-Semitism of the people or institutions involved, the AMIA case suffers from many of the pitfalls that affect political life in Argentina in general. Governmental institutions claim a lack of financial resources to explain inefficiency and unresponsiveness. The judicial process has dragged on for years, the delay itself becoming a denial of justice. Burbinsky and others point out the lack of political will from the government and a complacency from the prosecution, even in the face of an act that cost so much blood.
Sergio Widder, representative of the Wiesenthal Center in Latin America and a member of Memoria Activa's board, concurs. In a place where crimes are usually not investigated properly, he explains, the AMIA case did not present any reasons to make an exception.
The scarce advances in the investigation appear to ratify Widder's assessment. However, the magnitude of the crime and the nature of Argentine foreign policy at the time of the bombing suggests that there could have been many reasons to treat this case differently. President Menem's administration prided itself on having established excellent relations with Israel, with the U.S., and with the American Jewish community. Given its preoccupation with its image abroad, the government could have been a good target for foreign pressure seeking a speedy solution to the AMIA case.
Many foreign Jewish organizations have supported the local Jewish institutions' demands. At the governmental level, things have been more complex. Although there was foreign cooperation, especially at the early stages of the investigation, it addressed almost completely the international aspects of the terrorist attack. The Mossad, CIA and FBI contributed information and technical expertise which incriminated Iran and Hezbollah. Yet foreign governments did little beyond occasional declarative statements when it came to pressing local officials to find out the details of the local connection, even as the number of serious irregularities in the investigation mounted.
Explanations for this fact vary. The U.S. may not have wanted to spoil its good relations with Argentina, which had aligned itself firmly with the U.S. on most foreign policy fronts. The Israeli embassy acknowledges that Argentine-Israeli relations at the commercial and political level have been affected by the 1992 bombing of its old headquarters and the AMIA bombing. Yet Israel also reaffirms its interest in maintaining good relations. Further, according to the embassy, the Argentine Jewish community expected too much from the Mossad, which did not have the capacity or expertise to get involved in an investigation dealing with the local connection.
Laura Ginsberg, an active member of Memoria Activa whose husband was killed in the bombing, feels that the reason for the scarce foreign pressure is different. "It is extremely hard to convince foreign governments that the state's security apparatus may be an accomplice in an act of this nature." Dr. Rogelio Cichowolski, President of the DAIA (the federation of Argentine Jewish organizations) offers yet another explanation. He believes it likely that foreign intelligence services have some information but have so far declined to share it, "based on the perception that there is a lack of professionalism or rigor in the investigative work of the local intelligence services [and a] lack of certainty that any information will be used appropriately."
Six years after the bombing, the AMIA case remains unresolved. A handful of individuals (including members of the Buenos Aires Province police force) have been indicted as participants in the car bombing, but their role was primarily in providing the vehicle used. The link between the alleged foreign masterminds and the local people who carried out the bombing has yet to be determined, although strong evidence points to the local Iranian embassy. No one has uncovered the important details about the local connection - who was involved in getting, building, and exploding the car bomb, whom they responded to, and who has concealed the culprits. The case has been plagued with so many gross irregularities, including the disappearance of key evidence and disobedience of the judge's orders by government officials and the police, that some 50 parallel judicial or administrative cases have been opened to address them. Memoria Activa has also presented a claim before the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, an international human rights body, to create some international pressure to speed up the investigation.Some people, like Dr. Cichowolski, trust that new evidence and new witnesses will come up during the upcoming trial of those indicted. Perhaps a new law which allows the accused to provide information in exchange for a lighter sentence will break the code of silence within the police force. He also believes that new information might appear which may allow a deeper look into those parts of the case that were not mature enough to reach the trial stage.
While Cichowolski decries the many pitfalls in the investi-gation, he does not question the courts' good faith the way Memoria Activa does. His attitude suggests a level of trust in Argentine institutions that has put him and other AMIA and DAIA leaders at odds with Memoria Activa and many other members of the Jewish community. "To me, July 18 is a problem," he admits, because of the community wants him to voice its impatience with the energy required by six years of empty waiting. Yet at the risk of being deemed complacent, he expresses his preference for working persistently and avoiding incendiary remarks.