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About to Acknowledge Cover-up, Argentina Begins New Probe of Blast

March 1, 2005
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From their seventh-floor perch in downtown Buenos Aires, prosecutors Alberto Nisman and Marcelo Martinez Burgos have a sweeping view of this city’s most important public square, the bustling Plaza de Mayo. But the two men have had no time to enjoy the panorama. As chief prosecutors investigating the 1994 bombing of the AMIA headquarters only a few miles away, for the last six months Nisman and his chief deputy, Burgos, have been up to their necks in documents associated with the worst terrorist attack in Argentine history.

On Thursday, this office will take center stage. That’s when President Nestor Kirchner will hand the two men top-secret files from Argentina’s intelligence agency, SIDE.

The files are said to contain evidence never before seen by prosecutors attempting to discover who was behind the AMIA attack. Eighty-five people died in the attack, and some 300 were injured.

“This is the first time in the history of Argentina that secret information is being declassified and given to people not associated with the intelligence services,” Burgos told JTA in an exclusive interview.

The ceremony where Kirchner will release the files to Nisman and Burgos comes a day before top Argentine officials meeting at the Washington headquarters of the Organization of American States are to assume legal responsibility for past administrations’ mishandling of the investigation.

In so doing, they hope to re-establish Argentina’s credibility with the OAS and defuse a 1999 lawsuit brought before the group’s Inter-American Commission on Human Rights by Memoria Activa, a nonprofit group of AMIA victims’ relatives.

Burgos says it’s time to stop deceiving victims and their families about what really happened.

“Unlike previous investigators, we’re going to work absolutely according to the letter of the law, no matter where it takes us,” he vowed. “We’re going to give all our efforts to this work.”

Until now, the prosecutors’ office, the nerve center of the AMIA investigation, had been off-limits to journalists. But last week JTA became the first news organization to get past the front door, which is guarded by 24-hour security personnel and a bank of closed-circuit TV monitors.

The office, which takes up an entire floor in an old building used mainly by the government, was established after the conclusion of a three-year trial last year. After that trial, five policemen accused of complicity in the AMIA attack were released for lack of evidence.

When JTA visited, workmen were busy installing telephone cables, laying carpet and welding iron bars on doors. Others were hauling boxes of files into a warehouse-like room fitted with metal shelving.

Case documents fill up 658 volumes, each 200 pages long. Another 600 volumes detail each of the 30 or so lines of investigation, according to Burgos.

“We are now ordering every one of these volumes,” he said. “It will take us four to five months to read and cross-reference this case.”

Burgos, 37, is a criminal prosecutor with 10 years of experience under his belt. He had expected to be able to start working on the case as soon as he was appointed to his post, but bureaucracy got in the way.

“For the last four or five months, we’ve been trying to find resources to train people and set up the office so we could do our job,” Burgos said. “We have lost all this time just dealing with bureaucracy. You have to put out three formal bids in order to buy a computer. We have to struggle just to get an Internet connection.”

Nisman, who is Jewish, and Burgos, who isn’t, oversee a staff of some 45 people and an annual budget of slightly more than $300,000. Burgos says he needs more than twice that amount.

“We’re struggling to increase it,” he said.

In the meantime, the two men are overworked: They arrive at 8 a.m. and generally don’t leave before 9:30 p.m.

“We’re going to take every action necessary to determine who made the bomb and where it was made, which groups entered the country from outside, how they entered, and who participated in this act locally,” he said.

“The Ministry of Justice owes a debt to Argentine society because it didn’t advance this investigation for six years while it was being coordinated” by investigative judge Juan Jose Galeano, who was taken off the case and now faces trial for impropriety in his management of the case. “How can it be that 10 years after the attack, we still can’t determine the ID number of the chassis of the vehicle used in the bombing?”

Just outside Burgos’ office, an elaborate blackboard displays a diagram of the investigations being pursued. Among them are looks at the “Triple Frontier,” where Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay meet; the so-called “pista Siria” or “Syrian connection”; the local Muslim community; and “Testigo C” or Witness C, an investigation that involves a foreign intelligence service that Burgos declined to identify.

According to Alejandro Rua, the top Justice Ministry official responsible for the AMIA investigation, the prime suspects are now in either Lebanon or Iran.

“What we know is that the attack was done with a Trafic” — a kind of Renault — “and that we have some sketches of who could have been tied to this vehicle,” Rua told the Buenos Aires daily Pagina 12 last Friday.

“Iranians, Colombians, foreigners who lived in Argentina for several years were part of this plan,” he continued. “It appears that Samuel el-Reda,” a Colombian convert to Islam and husband of a secretary of the former Iranian cultural attache, Moshen Rabbani, “and a man from the Triple Frontier with a mobile telephone under the name of Andre Marquez coordinated the operation.”

Rua deflected criticism of his agency, saying that important evidence exists that implicates both Rabbani and el-Reda.

“It’s not like we’re beginning now,” he told Pagina 12. “What happened is that we have been working for these last 10 years with a false and incriminating hypothesis. The judges decided that this was done intentionally, a political game aimed at covering up the financial links between Carlos Menem and Iran, before and during the electoral campaign which he won.”

In a later interview with JTA, Rua said his office is “fully cooperating” with Nisman and Burgos.

Rua, who is to testify before the OAS next week in Washington, said the efforts by the government of President Nestor Kirchner to solve the AMIA bombing stand in stark contrast to those of Menem, who at some point may be called to testify in what many now believe was a massive coverup.

“We admit that the Argentine government at the time violated the human rights of the defendants,” said Rua. “We must recognize the reality of these facts. We can’t tell lies.”

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