Argentine Jews hope pressure will build to crack the case of the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center here following a New York Times report that former Argentine President Carlos Menem allegedly accepted a $10 million bribe to cover up Iran's responsibility for the attack.
Members of the Jewish community were deluged by calls from friends and relatives Monday after the Times published on its front page the leaked testimony of a defector from Iranian intelligence. "Witness C," an Iranian man known as Abdolghassem Mesbahi, testified that Menem received the bribe to cover up Iran's responsibility and deflect the investigation away from the Islamic republic.
The reports were not new, but the Times' prestige could give the issue renewed momentum.
Argentina's Jewish community has been frustrated by the listless investigation of the 1994 car bombing, which destroyed the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) community center, killed 85 people and wounded hundreds.
"This comes to show, again, that many in Argentina have been working actively to cover up the Iranian trail," said Laura Ginzberg, who lost her husband in the bombing and heads the group APEMIA, a group for victims' relatives and survivors.
"Everything touching the government's role in the case becomes a state secret," Ginzberg said. "They traded with the blood of our loved ones. They made money withholding the truth."
Ginzberg's group marked the eighth anniversary of the bombing July 18 with a ceremony. Demonstrators displayed a large banner reading, "The Argentine government is the local connection to the bombing."
"We were right," Ginzberg said. "They are involved."
After a seven-year investigation by federal judge Juan Jose Galeano, the case went to trial in September 2001. Relatives of the victims have harshly criticized Galeano's handling of the investigation. Galeano interviewed Mesbahi on two occasions in Mexico City, in July 1998 and May 2000. He kept the contents of the interviews a secret, but last year had to release copies to the three-judge panel overseeing the trial.
According to his deposition, Mesbahi defected from the Iranian secret service in 1996 and placed himself under German protection. He reportedly helped Germany solve the murder of five Iranian dissidents at a Berlin restaurant.
In his testimony, Mesbahi described an extensive Iranian intelligence network in South America. The network's main task was gunrunning and influencing Muslims in the region. Mesbahi said Buenos Aires was the regional headquarters for the organization and that the Iranian Embassy in Buenos Aires provided support for a cell that bombed the Israeli Embassy in Argentina on March 17, 1992, killing 28 people. The same happened with the 1994 bombing of the AMIA community center, Mesbahi said.
After each bombing, Iran sent commercial missions to Buenos Aires and trade increased exponentially, he told investigators. Iran became a model customer, purchasing massive amounts of commodities and leather products, never complaining about exorbitant prices or asking for reciprocal purchases of Iranian produce.
It was not the only payoff, said Mesbahi, who claimed that Menem received Iranian financial support during his 1989 campaign for president, and after the 1994 bombing, received a further $10 million in a Swiss bank account. The Iranians were interested in Menem, who is of Syrian ancestry, because they believed he shared their dislike of Jews and Israel and would be sympathetic to Iranian interests, the Times said. He also said Tuesday that he had instructed his lawyers to sue the Times for "libel and slanderous publication."
An Iranian official called the Times report "a journalistic fairy tale" concocted by Zionists. Menem's former chief of staff denied the allegations in the report, calling them politically motivated.
Mesbahi also claimed that an Argentine presidential aide visited Iran four times after the AMIA bombing to brief the government on the pace of the investigation.
One of the suspects being tried, Carlos Alberto Telleldin, claimed that in 1995 another presidential aide visited him in prison and offered him $2 million to blame the attack on a group of Lebanese immigrants then being held in neighboring Paraguay. Remarkably, Galeano did nothing with this volatile testimony.
With the story again in the news, the community is reacting angrily.
"It's time that Menem's personal involvement in the case was probed," Sergio Widder, the Latin American representative of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said.
Already in 1999, Memoria Activa, a group seeking to resolve the AMIA case, filed a complaint against the Argentine government with the Human Rights Court of the Organization of the Americas. The complaint was for obstruction of justice and complicity with terrorism.
"That shows how serious the charges are," Widder said. "And when we say 'Argentine government' we mean [especially] Carlos Menem. Here in the Simon Wiesenthal Center's office, we understand that Menem should be urgently called as a witness."
While they weren't surprised by the Times report, members of the Jewish community speculated about the timing of the disclosure. With Menem again a contender in presidential elections slated for next March, many wondered about political motivations behind the leak of the testimony.
"I guess the current president wants to handicap Menem," said one Jewish community official, who wished to remain anonymous.
Menem and the current Argentine president, Eduardo Duhalde, are bitter political enemies.
The Times said the 100-page testimony was provided by "Argentine officials" who were "frustrated that the case remains unsolved." .