20 tried for Argentine Jewish center attack

BUENOS AIRES, Sept. 25 (JTA) — A trial that began here this week for 20 people accused of playing a role in the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center has taken on additional significance following the terror attacks against the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

“Terrorism is a worldwide threat to democracy and tolerance,” Jacob Kovadloff, a representative of the American Jewish Committee, told JTA before entering the courtroom Monday.

“At this time, there is a great deal of concern around the world how Argentina will deal with this issue.”

Security was the byword as the trial began.

Police vans drove with sirens blaring toward the court. Two police dogs trained to sniff out explosives walked the court corridors. An ambulance was parked at the front door.

To get inside, it was necessary to walk about a half-mile within green fences that surrounded the federal court building.

Inside, doctors in green scrubs could be seen with stethoscopes around their necks. Three metal detector machines guarded the entrance to the courtroom. Every bag was checked at least two times. Credentials that were necessary to get into the courtroom were checked by magnifying glass and ultraviolet light to verify their authenticity.

Police said 200 agents were on hand to insure security.

The “measures became stronger after the attacks against the World Trade Center and Pentagon,” inspector Gustavo Palazzo told JTA.

The basement in the court building in downtown Buenos Aires had a courtroom specially built for the trial — and it was packed Monday.

In attendance were three federal judges, four prosecutors, the 20 defendants, dozens of lawyers, victims’ relatives, politicians and reporters.

Also to be seen inside the courtroom, which was decorated with pink curtains, were Jewish community leaders and Israel’s ambassador to Argentina, Benjamin Oron.

Before the trial began, Pablo Jacoby, lawyer for Memoria Activa, a group of victims’ relatives, asked for a minute of silence for those killed in four terror attacks — the two earlier this month in the United States; the July 1994 AMIA blast; and an earlier attack, in March 1992, on the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires.

The AMIA attack claimed the lives of 85 people and wounded some 300 others. In the bombing of the Israeli Embassy, 29 people were killed and more than 200 injured.

After the judges accepted Jacoby’s request, everyone in the courtroom rose for the minute of silence before the trial began.

The opening week of the proceedings are being devoted to reading the accusations . Statements are scheduled to begin next week.

The 20 defendants have not been charged with involvement in the actual attack.

Five of them, four former police officers and car salesman, stand accused of supplying the stolen van — later loaded with some 600 pounds of explosives — used in the bombing.

If found guilty, they could be sentenced to life imprisonment, the maximum punishment under Argentine law.

The other 15 have been charged for offenses discovered during the investigation process.

Jewish and Argentine officials alike hope the trial may shed light on those who masterminded the attack.

Jewish leaders here and abroad have long blamed Argentina’s inability to find the culprits on incompetence, corruption and anti-Semitism among security and government officials.

The terror attacks against the World Trade Center and Pentagon are likely to affect the trial, Jewish leaders, lawyers and victims’ relatives agreed.

“The attacks in the United States may change the results of the AMIA trial,” said the president of AMIA, Hugo Ostrower. “There is more international pressure for convictions. And this has modified local attitudes.

For Marta Nercellas, a lawyer for DAIA, the Jewish umbrella organization, the attacks against the United States gave new meaning to the attacks that occurred in Argentina: “Terrorism is the common enemy, so this has to be a common fight. We need more international help.”

Nercellas admitted she was “not nervous, but anxious” before the start of the trial.

Prosecutor Alberto Nisman told JTA he was surprised to see how calm he and the other three prosecutors were a few hours before the trial began.

The trial is expected to last between seven and 10 months.

During the first hours, it seemed that nothing was as usual in the court building.

“I’ve never seen so many journalists here,” said Carlos Riera, who sells coffee near the main entrance.

Leandro Castro, who runs a refreshment stand on the first floor of the building, ran out of sandwiches before noon on Monday. Since opening for business, he had sold 65 jam-and-cheese sandwiches.

“That is double the usual amount,” he said.

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