BUENOS AIRES (Jan. 25)
Former Argentine President Carlos Menem finds himself on the defensive as new clues have emerged in the investigation of the 1994 bombing of Argentina’s central Jewish institution.
Last week, a spokesman for the Swiss justice system said authorities there were checking the possibility that Menem, Argentina’s president during the bombing, had received $10 million from Iran to cover up the Islamic regime’s responsibility for the attack — and that the money is currently in a Swiss bank account.
Menem says the charge is baseless.
In July 1994, a bomb leveled the building of the AMIA, the main Jewish institution in Buenos Aires, killing 85 people and wounding some 300.
Menem’s bank account, which has been frozen, totals $10 million dollars, according to lawyers in the AMIA case. To people involved in the investigation, it seems like more than a coincidence: It’s the same amount that a witness — a former employee of Iran’s intelligence service who for years was protected by the German government — testified Menem received to disguise Iran’s responsibility for the attack.
Abolghasem Mesbahi — or Witness C, as he is known in the case — testified before Judge Juan Jose Galeano in Mexico in May 2000.
That followed a meeting between Mesbahi and Galeano in Germany in 1998. At that time, Mesbahi reportedly told Galeano that he had more to say but that conditions were not ripe in Argentina, where Menem still was president. Menem left office in December 1999.
When they met in Mexico two years later, Mesbahi said Menem had received the money after sending Argentine government employees to Iran to finalize the bribe.
Galeano long has worked on the hypothesis that the Iranian government gave the order for the attack.
Mesbahi described an Argentine government employee, aged between 45 and 50, whose beard was shaped like padlock. In coming weeks, Mesbahi will be shown photographs of about six Menem employees who match that description, prosecutor Alberto Nisman told JTA.
“It is very important to have the date of those money operations and the origin, in order to confirm if the deposit was made after the attack,” Nisman said.
Sources in the Argentine justice system already say, unofficially, that the deposit was not made before the bombing.
As Galeano tried to arrange a third meeting with Mesbahi — which didn’t materialize — prosecutors in the AMIA case met last November with a German police official to inquire about Mesbahi.
According to Nisman, the German official explained that Mesbahi no longer was under the protection of the German government.
Prosecutors notified Galeano — who is leading the investigation into both local and international connections to the attack — and judges at a trial in Buenos Aires that is exploring the local angle.
“I was urged to have” Mesbahi “testify again. Now I think it is also useful to put together new elements about Menem’s account in Switzerland,” Nisman said.
The Swiss spokesman said authorities are looking for a former Iranian state employee and a particular bank, but he refused to be more specific.
Sergio Widder, Latin American representative of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, told JTA that the center asked Switzerland to “officially and immediately spread any information” that could help uncover and punish “terrorist actions against the democratic world.”
As for the AMIA case, Widder said, “Menem’s situation has to be investigated and he has to testify at the trial.”
Despite repeated requests, Menem has not testified, and it is not certain that he ever will.
“The suspicion that the Argentine state was part of the local connection for the bombing is what Memoria Activa” — a group of relatives of the bombing victims — “has been expressing for many years,” Widder said.
Carolina Fernandez Blanco, the lawyer representing AMIA in the trial, told JTA that AMIA’s lawyers have been pressing since last November to have Mesbahi testify again before Galeano. Mesbahi is not a suspect in the case.
“We always have thought he is credible,” Fernandez Blanco said.
Meanwhile, the trial against 20 people accused of playing a role in the bombing has turned up more evidence that a van loaded with some 600 pounds of explosives was used in the attack.
Experts who will try to prove that an explosives-laden van was present at the scene of the attack are expected to testify in coming weeks.
If it can’t be proved that a van was present at the site of the bombing, then the people accused of supplying the van and filling it with explosives could walk free.