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Questions remain six years after Argentina attack

BUENOS AIRES, July 12 (JTA) — In the cold morning air, the loud, mournful calls of four shofars sounded in front of the federal courthouse.

“The ancient sound of the shofar used to rally the people to listen,” Enrique Burbinsky told a few dozen people Monday. “Today it rallies the people to demand” justice.

Burbinsky is a member and spokesman for Memoria Activa, the organization formed after the July 18, 1994, car bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center that killed 86 people and wounded some 300 others.

Every Monday morning at 9:53, the time of the bombing here in the Argentine capital, relatives of the victims and a handful of leaders from various Jewish groups gather in front of the courthouse to seek justice.

Six years after the bombing of the center, long the heart of Jewish life here, the Argentine government has failed to find those responsible for the attack. The 1992 car bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, an attack that killed 29 people and left 200 wounded, has likewise gone unsolved.

A handful of individuals — including members of the Buenos Aires provincial police force — have been indicted as participants in the AMIA bombing, but their role was primarily in providing the vehicle used for the attack.

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 Iranian Embassy in Buenos Aires.

The case has been plagued with so many gross irregularities — including the disappearance of key evidence and disobedience of the investigating judge’s orders by government officials and the police — that some 50 separate 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.

Burbinsky and other Jewish leaders charge that the lack of progress in the case is a direct result of the government’s lack of political will and the prosecution’s complacency.

Sergio Widder, representative of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Latin America and a member of Memoria Activa’s board, is among those who feel that given the lack of many proper criminal investigations in Argentina, there was no reason to expect anything different in this case.

Just the same, the magnitude of the crime and the nature of Argentina’s foreign policy at the time of the bombing suggest that Argentina had ample reason to treat this case differently.

Perhaps most important in this regard, the administration of then- President Carlos Menem prided itself on having established excellent relations with Israel, the United States and the American Jewish community.

Although Argentina received help from foreign governments, especially at the early stages of the investigation, that help mostly addressed the international aspects of the terrorist attack.

The Mossad, CIA and FBI contributed information and technical expertise that incriminated Iran and Hezbollah. Yet foreign governments did little beyond occasional statements to press local officials to find out the details of the “local connection,” even as the number of serious irregularities in the investigation mounted.

Explanations for the lack of foreign pressure vary. For one, U.S. officials may not have wanted to spoil their good relations with Argentina, which had aligned itself firmly with the United States on most foreign policy fronts.

The Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires acknowledges that Argentine-Israeli relations at both the commercial and political levels were negatively affected by the embassy and AMIA bombings. Yet Israel also reaffirms its interest in maintaining good relations with Argentina.

Further, according to the embassy, the Argentine Jewish community expected too much from the Mossad, Israel’s spy agency, 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 there could have been more foreign pressure.

But, she said, “It is extremely hard to convince foreign governments that the state’s security apparatus may be an accomplice in an act of this nature.”

Rogelio Cichowolsky, president of DAIA, an umbrella group of Jewish organizations in Argentina, believes it likely that foreign intelligence services have some information but have declined to share it with Argentine officials.

This is because of 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,” he said.

Some, like Cichowolsky, believe that new evidence and new witnesses will emerge during the upcoming trial of those who have been indicted.

While Cichowolsky decries the many pitfalls in the investigation, he does not question the courts’ good faith the way Memoria Activa does — and this has put him and other AMIA and DAIA leaders at odds with Memoria Activa and many other members of the Jewish community.

At the risk of being deemed complacent by Memoria Activa, Cichowolsky expressed his preference for working persistently and avoiding incendiary remarks.

On July 17, Memoria Activa will meet for the 311th consecutive week to demand justice and to hold a special memorial service commemorating the sixth anniversary of the bombing.

As they have done so many times before, its members will likely condemn the course of the investigation, challenge the new administration of President Fernando de la Rua to show the political will that its predecessor lacked, and express their fears that a trial of the few already indicted will put an end to the case with a few half-truths.

They will also likely express their disagreement with the AMIA/DAIA leadership in strong terms.

Pointedly, this rally by Memoria Activa is separate from the one organized by AMIA and DAIA for the morning of July 18 — the actual anniversary of the bombing — which will be attended by a group of victims’ relatives who have preferred to work within the AMIA/DAIA framework.

It is one of the many sad truths of the AMIA case that it not only destroyed families, but further divided a community that was already undergoing an economic crisis and a crisis of leadership.

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