Skip to comments.1994 bombing still dogs ex-Argentine president
Posted on 11/14/2002 3:35:40 PM PST by knighthawk
Swiss have agreed to help probe cover-up charges
Investigators freeze bank accounts in search for possible Iranian role in attack on Buenos Aires Jewish center
In a move that could finally shed some light on the unsolved 1994 car bombing of a Jewish center in Buenos Aires blamed on Lebanese fugitive Imad Mughniyeh, Swiss authorities have agreed to help Argentina investigate allegations that then-President Carlos Menem was paid $10 million to cover up an alleged Iranian role in the attack, which killed 85 people.
In a case that has become more bizarre and convoluted at every turn over the last eight years, the Swiss Justice Ministry disclosed on Nov. 7 that investigating Judge Christine Junod had approved a request from the Argentine government to provide judicial assistance to lift banking secrecy regulations to probe accounts held by Menem and his family in Geneva.
This coincided with reports that senior officials of Hizbullah and other militant Islamic organizations, coordinated by Mughniyeh, met in September in the lawless zone where the borders of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay converge to plot attacks in the Western hemisphere against the United States and Israel if the United States invades Iraq, or if Israel is drawn into that conflict.
The so-called tri-border area has long been considered a terrorist haven which is alleged to have figured in the July 18, 1994, bombing of the Israel-Argentina Mutual Association (AMIA) and the car bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires on March 17, 1992, in which 22 people were killed.
If these reports are accurate, it would mark a major shift in Hizbullah policy, which since Sept. 11, 2001, has come in for intensive US scrutiny as part of President George W. Bushs war against terrorism. Hizbullah, supported by Tehran, is engaged in hostilities with Israel but has not been implicated by Western authorities in attacks on US targets since the mid-1980s in Lebanon.
But more importantly, any concrete evidence of Iranian involvement in plotting attacks on the US, whether by the Tehran government or organizations controlled by hard-liners in the power elite and not answerable to the reformist administration of President Mohammad Khatami, would present a potentially explosive situation that could leave Iran, as well as Syria and Lebanon, open to retaliation by the Americans as part of the expanding war against terrorism.
For this reason, the reports of a terrorist gathering by senior figures in Hizbullah, Al-Qaeda and other militant Islamic organizations in Latin America, should be treated with some skepticism until more definitive proof is available. The Bush administration has in recent months sought to discredit and demonize Iran, Syria and Lebanon as supporters of terrorist organizations, making them potential targets for US military action once the anticipated war against Saddam Hussein in Iraq has been concluded.
Israel, in particular, has been pressing for US action against these states, which are aligned against it, and the allegations of a terrorist summit in the tri-border area should be considered in that light. For one thing, that region, which US authorities consider a sanctuary for terrorists, gun-runners, drug smugglers, money launderers, counterfeiters and other criminal elements, has come under unprecedented scrutiny by Latin American and Western intelligence agencies since the Sept. 11 attacks of last year.
On Sept. 9, 1999, Argentine judicial authorities issued an international arrest warrant for Mughniyeh, a close ally of Iran and high on the Americans most-wanted list since 1984, for the 1994 Buenos Aires bombing. No one has ever been arrested for the attack, or indeed the 1992 bombing, although in September 2001, 20 Argentines, including 15 former police officers, accused of helping the bombers in the 1994 attack, went on trial. But those proceedings, expected to drag on for many months yet, have so far produced no evidence to conclusively identify the bombers, or raise expectations they will be apprehended.
Indeed, the whole judicial process concerning the bombings has become something of a farce. Despite 44,000 pages of evidence, 3,185 witnesses, at least 25 wiretaps and the repeated assurances of Argentine governments and judicial authorities, the AMIA investigation appears to have led nowhere. But the Swiss decision to investigate Menem may once again reinvigorate the tortuous quest to determine who was behind the 1994 bombing, and probably the 1992 attack as well.
Argentine authorities, accused of deliberately obstructing the investigations into those atrocities, have been trying since December 2001 to convince the Swiss to investigate Geneva bank accounts held by Menem, his family and associates following allegations that Iran transferred $10 million in return for him quashing evidence that Tehran was behind the 1994 bombing. That evidence came from Abdolhassem Mesbahi, a former Iranian intelligence officer who defected to Turkey in 1995.
Mesbahi, who provided vital evidence that led a German court to incriminate Irans top leadership in the 1992 assassination of top Kurdish dissidents in a Berlin restaurant, has been described by one senior Western intelligence official as probably the most valuable and well-informed defector from Iran in the past decade or more.
The Iranians and Menem, a Roman Catholic convert of Syrian-Muslim descent who was Argentinas two-term president from 1989 to 1999, deny the allegations of a cover-up or pay-off. Menem, who is campaigning for nomination for a third presidential term in elections scheduled for March 2003, claims the allegations are politically motivated.
The Swiss rejected at least three Argentine requests for assistance in the case but decided to cooperate after fresh evidence was provided which Junod said convinced her that Buenos Aires had met the so-called dual criminality requirement that the alleged offense was a recognized crime in both jurisdictions.
Argentina has alleged that Menem received money to orient the investigation in a certain way, Junod explained. I will now be able to collect information, sort it and send on any pertinent details to Argentina.
In October 2001, Swiss authorities froze two accounts, which together contained $10 million, as part of a money-laundering investigation of Menem. One of the accounts was held in his name and that of his former wife Zulema and his daughter Zulemita; the other to a company that Justice Ministry officials declined to identify. Menem has been cleared by Argentine authorities in that case, but the accounts remain blocked.
Last January, Menem declared: It is absolutely false that I have a bank account in Switzerland. But a few months later, he acknowledged that he had opened a Geneva account in the names of his former wife and two children in 1986 with some $200,000 from a legal settlement he won after being jailed as a political prisoner of Argentinas former military dictatorship. The account, with interest, has grown to $400,000.
In the immediate aftermath of the 1994 bombing, Menems administration initially blamed Hizbullah and Iran for the attack. But the Iran lead evaporated in a painfully slow investigation plagued by disappearing witnesses, official bungling and inept police work that the families of the victims claimed bordered on the criminal.
Argentine authorities also investigated the flamboyant Menem, whose presidency was tarnished by a series of corruption scandals, and others in connection with the suspected illegal sale in 1991-95 of 6,500 tons of arms worth $100 million to Croatia and Ecuador violating United Nations sanctions on both countries, alleging bribes went to Swiss accounts. The former president was held under house arrest for six months, but was released in November 2001 after Argentinas supreme court ruled that prosecutors had failed to prove that he led a conspiracy, clearing him to run for a third presidential term.
The Swiss investigation may well be the last prospect of unraveling the mystery of the 1992 and 1994 Buenos Aires bombings, the outcome of which could impact deeply on Hizbullah and Lebanon as the Americans and Israelis seek to implicate the organization in terrorist activity.
The trial in Buenos Aires of the motley assortment of corrupt police officers and small-time crooks who are currently in the dock is not expected to do much more than link the 1994 attack to a group of Argentine bad guys, without providing any hard evidence about who carried out the attack itself.
Both bombings have long been linked to terrorist cells that operated in the tri-border zone, in particular the smuggling center of Ciudad del Este on Paraguays border with Argentina. This has never been established beyond doubt, but US and Israeli authorities in particular insist that the zone, home to more than 100 clandestine jungle airfields, is a hotbed of terrorist activity by Lebanese and others.
Tolerance of the Nazis in their midst since WWII led to a blind eye being cast toward anti-semitism. The Islamicists saw their opportunity and made their move.
Argentina is another doomed country. You cannot mess with God's Chosen and not suffer consequences.