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Ex-Argentine president joins campaign to expose junta’s anti-Semitic past

By Alex Weisler, JTA

June 16, 2011 | 2:48 pm

More than 30 years after he was kidnapped and tortured by secret police in Buenos Aires, Argentine banker Eduardo Saiegh has an unlikely partner in his fight to convict former government leaders on charges of anti-Semitic discrimination and state terrorism: the government itself.

Last month, Eduardo Duhalde, Argentina’s secretary of human rights and a former president, joined Saiegh, who is Jewish, as a co-complainant in the case. That puts a member of the country’s current government on the side of an investigation of its former leaders, including an ex-finance minister and a head of Argentina’s Central Bank, on charges of crimes against humanity.

It all stems from the events surrounding eight days in the fall of 1980 when Saiegh, the owner of a major bank in Argentina, was detained by police and allegedly tortured and encouraged to sign away the rights to his bank. Eventually he did.

Just two days later, Argentina’s Central Bank transferred $7 million in airline shares from Saiegh’s bank, according to Morton Rosenthal, the former director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Latin American Affairs department, who has been working on the case since the early 1990s.

Many viewed the incident as part of a campaign by government officials to oust Jews from the country’s major banks. Until Duhalde joined Saiegh’s campaign, however, that fact was never acknowledged publicly by Argentina’s government.

It represents a significant milestone in the government’s recognition of its anti-Semitic past, Rosenthal said.

“His complaint is now their complaint,” Rosenthal said of the government. “They called for the arrest of these people.”

Though the financial deal, which occurred during the military junta that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983, led to the prosecution of some members of the army, the non-military personnel who served as the plan’s architects were never fully brought to task, according to Rosenthal.

Saiegh’s campaign aims to change that.

“The civilians, who were major beneficiaries, enjoyed immunity from prosecution,” Rosenthal said. “The government is taking actions to lift this immunity, even though 30 years have passed.”

Saiegh says he has not forgotten the horrors of his week in captivity or the silent promise he made himself in the fall of 1980.

“It was a Friday night, I was free, and I vowed to myself that I will fight the rest of my life to repair this situation,” he recalled. “I believed it was very, very deep moral pain. The moral pain is worse than the physical pain because the physical pain passes after time.”

Saiegh says he has no doubts why he was targeted.

“It happened because I am Jewish. If were from the traditional economic establishment,” he said, it never would have happened.

The transparent day of reckoning provided by a public trial would teach Argentine anti-Semites and lawbreakers that there are consequences for criminal action, Saiegh says.

More important, he adds, a legal victory—with the government itself as a co-complainant—would serve as a rebuke to the notion that judges and prosecutors can be bought in Argentina.

“They bought justice in every situation it was possible,” he said. “With the money they buy impunity. What will be the future of this country if that continues?”

Justice in Argentina often is not easily achieved.

In the case of the country’s most notorious tragedy involving Jews, the 1994 bombing in Buenos Aires of the AMIA Jewish community center, which killed 85, the investigation has been marred by delays and prosecutorial misconduct. The perpetrators of the bombing have never been arrested, though Iranian officials have been implicated in the attack.

The bombing’s Argentine suspects, many of them members of the Buenos Aires Police Department, were cleared of all charges in September 2004. One year later, the judge heading up the case was impeached on charges of serious mishandling of the investigation.

Saiegh, too, has faced significant challenges in his crusade. Over the past three decades he has seen some small victories, but nothing on the scale of the endorsement by Duhalde, the former president.

In 1999, the political umbrella organization of Argentina’s Jewish community, known by the acronym DAIA, took Saiegh’s case to a judge in Spain. The judge, Baltasar Garzon, came out strongly against the Central Bank’s actions, noting that “the violent action against the Jewish community in Argentina during the military dictatorship was something planned beforehand and institutionalized.”

However, Garzon’s findings were not recognized in Argentina.

In 2004, Duhalde wrote a letter in which he acknowledged that the facts of Saiegh’s case matched a pattern of state terrorism and unlawful appropriation of property against the country’s Jewish community.

Rosenthal says it was an important turning point because it enabled Saiegh to begin pursuing a criminal complaint as opposed to simply working within the confines of the civil system—an action he filed in 2009.

Once a judge formally accepts Duhalde’s decision to formally join Saiegh’s suit as a co-complainant, they will have the ability to call witnesses, launch a full investigation and ultimately proceed to trial.

Pursuing his case is still a risky endeavor, Saiegh says; he has had round-the-clock police protection since filing the 2009 suit. But to hear the banker tell it, there’s something more important at play here than his own safety: the future of the Argentine Jewish community.

“With discrimination, you can’t make a country. You need integration,” Saiegh said. “That’s something we need change for the Jews in Argentina.”

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