25 years after the AMIA bombing, justice is again denied

The victims and their families just received yet another kick in the teeth when a court in Buenos Aires acquitted former Argentine President Carlos Menem of engaging in a cover-up during the first, thoroughly discredited AMIA investigation.

The ruins of the AMIA Jewish Community Center after the 1994 bombing in Buenos Aires. Credit: La Nación via Wikimedia Commons.
The ruins of the AMIA Jewish Community Center after the 1994 bombing in Buenos Aires. Credit: La Nación via Wikimedia Commons.
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen, a senior analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics.

This July, Argentina’s Jewish community will mark the 25th anniversary of the bombing of the AMIA Jewish Center in Buenos Aires, in which 85 people were murdered and hundreds more were seriously wounded. It is promising to be a wretched and depressing commemoration, frankly, because there is no reason to expect anything else.

On July 18, 1994, a Renault utility truck packed with explosives smashed into the AMIA building in the busy downtown area of the Argentine capital, leaving a scene of absolute carnage in its wake. The bombing, which came two years after a nearly identical attack on the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, an atrocity that killed 29 people, was similarly planned and carried out by the Iranian regime and its Lebanese Shi’ite proxy, Hezbollah. An entire generation later, exactly none of the AMIA suspects, the subjects of Interpol “Red Notices” since 2007, have been captured and placed on trial.

Indeed, as the years wound on, the AMIA investigation was exposed as a bigger source of political intrigue and duplicity than even the bombing itself. Consider the record. The first AMIA investigation, set up under former Argentine President Carlos Menem (more on him momentarily), collapsed after it was exposed as a den of corruption, whose strategic goal was to deflect attention from the responsibility of the Iranians for the bombing.

The second reconstituted AMIA investigation, set up under former President Nestor Kirchner in 2004, was more promising, principally because it became the domain of the fearless federal prosecutor, Alberto Nisman. It was Nisman’s diligent work that resulted in Interpol releasing those warrants for the senior Iranian and Hezbollah operatives. But Nisman eventually paid for his efforts with his life in 2015, when he was discovered murdered in his apartment hours before he was due to unveil a complaint against then-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (the spouse of the now-deceased Nestor) that detailed her government’s collusion in exonerating the Iranian mullahs.

Nisman, some said, was the 86th victim of the AMIA bombing. Cristina Kirchner, herself ousted from office by current President Mauricio Macri in November 2015, is widely suspected of both involvement in Nisman’s death, and of recruiting the Argentine police and judiciary into spreading the lie, exposed after Macri’s election, that he committed suicide. Now that Kirchner has been elected to Argentina’s Senate, she can claim immunity from prosecution.

Of the six Interpol “Red Notice” suspects, the five Iranian officials among them remain at large, while the one Lebanese—Hezbollah’s second-in-command, Imad Mughniyeh—was killed by a car bomb in Damascus in 2008. Meanwhile, the other senior Iranian officials implicated in the AMIA bombing have never been subjected to even a tap on the shoulder. One of them, former Iranian President Ali Hashemi Rafsanjani, who allegedly hosted the meeting where the AMIA attack was decided upon, died two years ago. Another, the former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati, still enjoys extensive influence as a senior adviser to the regime’s so-called “Supreme Leader,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Justice has so far escaped the AMIA executioners; for those who abetted them, the record is also miserably poor. Last week, in the first significant AMIA-related event of this 25th anniversary year, the victims and their families received yet another kick in the teeth when a court in Buenos Aires acquitted Menem of engaging in a cover-up during the first, thoroughly discredited AMIA investigation.

Prosecutors had been pushing for Menem to serve a prison sentence of at least four years. Accused of endorsing bribes to officials that pushed the AMIA investigation’s attention away from the Iranians and onto domestic “suspects,” Menem was also named by a former senior Iranian intelligence operative as having been a “paid asset” of the Iranian regime during his term in office. But none of this was seriously examined in court, where Menem, as the Buenos Aires Times reported last Thursday, “gave little away in his testimony, saying state secrets meant he was prevented from presenting bombshell evidence. His lawyer explained to the court in 2016 that Menem declined to reveal any information ‘that could affect the current government, the interests of the nation, and peaceful coexistence with other nations.’ ”

Some of the conspirators beneath Menem, including former federal judge Juan José Galeano, and former prosecutors Eamon Mullen and José Barbaccia, did receive prison sentences this week for their roles in corrupting the first AMIA investigation. But the exoneration of Menem brought a furious response from Memoria Activa, an Argentine-based advocacy group seeking justice for the AMIA victims. The judges “decided to acquit Menem when it became clear, according to the evidence, that he was one of the main [individuals] responsible for the impunity in the AMIA case,” the group said in a statement. “His government knew that the attack was going to happen; not only did they not prevent it, they ordered the manipulation of the investigation so that the truth would not come out.”

When Jewish leaders and foreign dignitaries fly into Buenos Aires this July, it is to be hoped that they will call the AMIA debacle for what it is: a travesty of justice, an insult to victims of terrorism everywhere and an exemplary case of a terror-sponsoring state, Iran, bribing and cajoling a foreign government to bend to its will after murdering nearly 100 of its citizens. There is much to mourn—most of all those who died in the bombing, along with Alberto Nisman, who was assassinated for telling the truth. There is nothing—nothing at all—to be proud of.

Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.

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