Islamic Regime in Iran Linked to Argentine Bombing
September 20, 2003
Knight Ridder News
Kevin G. Hall
BUENOS AIRES - Nearly a decade after the bombing of an Argentine Jewish center killed 85 people in the worst anti-Semitic act since World War II, investigators have stunning new evidence that the culprit was a Lebanese-born suicide bomber aided by Iran.
Israeli diplomatic sources told Argentine investigators earlier this month that the bomber was Ibrahim Hussein Berro, a 29-year-old Shiite Muslim who has been honored with a plaque in southern Lebanon for his ''martyrdom'' on July 18, 1994, the date of the terrorist attack
The powerful ammonium nitrate bomb hidden in a van reduced to rubble a seven-story building that housed the Israelite-Argentine Mutual Association, known as AMIA, and the offices of the Delegation of Argentine Israeli Associations, or DAIA, the political umbrella organization for Latin America's largest Jewish population.
Argentina suspected Iran from the outset because of its support for the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah, notorious for its car-bomb attacks on Jewish and American targets. And there had been suggestions that the blast was the work of a suicide bomber.
But now, the theory of a suicide bomber has been confirmed, with a name and hometown. Both investigators and Jewish community leaders now think that after nine years of slow-moving court inquiries the pieces of the puzzle are coming together to strongly implicate Iranian diplomats in Buenos Aires.
The 1994 bombing, along with a March 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires that killed 28, remain unsolved and a festering wound for Argentina. Court investigations have achieved little more than spotlighting corrupt police officers, petty thieves and stolen-car rings that might have provided the vehicle or the explosives.
At times, the Argentine probe has seemed circus-like. One key witness was an Iranian defector who fled to Cuba.
A former Iranian spy, testifying under protection in Germany, said earlier this year that former Argentine President Carlos Menem took $10 million in hush money from Iran to quash any serious investigation. Menem denied the charge.
But now, new intelligence information, detailed phone records and a promise by new Argentine President Néstor Kirchner to share with Jewish groups intelligence files concerning the attack, are serving to rekindle the investigation and renew hopes.
On Sept. 2, Israel passed via diplomatic channels to judicial investigators in Argentina vital information that helped identify Hussein Berro as the alleged suicide bomber.
Attorney Marta Nercellas, who represents bombing victims in court proceedings and oral testimony, said phone records presented to the court show a call made from Buenos Aires to Hussein Berro's family home in the Beirut neighborhood of al Ouzai just hours before the attack. There were no prior calls from Argentina to the Beirut number, nor any after the attack.
''We believe this was a good-bye call,'' Nercellas told Knight Ridder.
A former Argentine policeman who converted to Islam, Miguel Alfredo Barcia, testified Aug. 28 that he met and befriended Hussein Berro days before the 1994 blast at the Al Iman mosque and religious center funded by the Iranian government in the town of Canuelas, about an hour outside Buenos Aires.
Transcripts of Barcia's testimony are not yet available, but Nercellas made her notes from the session available to Knight Ridder. Testifying before a three-judge panel investigating alleged police support for terrorists, Barcia reportedly said Hussein Berro confided that his eight brothers had been ''martyred'' in suicide bombings or clashes with Israeli troops in southern Lebanon.
Barcia described Hussein Berro as depressed because he had failed in a previous attempted suicide bombing, Nercellas said. Investigators are combing through immigration records in Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay to check whether Hussein Berro entered legally under his own name.
Barcia also testified that Hussein Berro disappeared from Canuelas shortly before the AMIA attack, according to Nercellas' notes. In earlier testimony before Judge Juan Jose Galeano, who has conducted the principal investigation into the 1994 bombing, Barcia did not provide such details, Nercellas said.
The new details from Barcia add to evidence being used in court to implicate Iran in the attack.
Acting on an arrest warrant signed by Judge Galeano on Aug. 13, Great Britain on Aug. 21 detained Iran's former ambassador in Buenos Aires, Hadi Soleimanpour, 47. His extradition proceedings began Friday but were postponed until Oct. 23 to give British officials time to consider the evidence that Argentina has presented against him.
Galeano also signed arrest warrants for seven other Iranians employed in the embassy at the time of the bombing. Also wanted is Ali Fallahijan, who headed Iran's state intelligence apparatus at the time of the 1994 bombing.
Citing diplomatic immunity, Soleimanpour refused to cooperate with Argentine investigators in the weeks and months after the 1994 bombing.
CALLS TO MOSQUE
Among the circumstantial evidence linking Soleimanpour to the bombing is a flurry of calls to the mosque where Hussein Berro was living, made by Soleimanpour and others in the Iranian embassy days before the attack.
Argentina has sent Tehran five requests for legal comment on the alleged involvement by Soleimanpour or others but received no reply, Jorge Palacios, Argentina's top anti-terror officer, said in an interview.
''They need to justify a ton of [strange] circumstances. This is not a capricious move by the judge,'' said the head of the anti-terror directorate of Argentina's national police. ``If you really don't have anything to hide, why not answer?''
Iran has insisted vehemently that it had no hand in the bombing, and that the United States and Israel are behind Argentina's attempts to prosecute former Iranian diplomats.
Argentine Jewish groups believe there is strong, albeit circumstantial, evidence that Iranian diplomats were involved in the attack.
They point to a strange change in diplomatic procedure in the weeks before the blast. Like many other embassies around the world, Iran's mission in Buenos Aires routinely received official mail in diplomatic pouches shipped through air carriers. Weeks before the bombing, however, diplomatic couriers began to bring in all mail in person, said Nercellas.
Testifying on Aug. 28, the imam, or spiritual leader of the Canuelas mosque, confirmed that the Iranian embassy had asked him to look into the purchase of a Renault van -- similar to the vehicle used to attack the mutual association offices -- to transport the mosque's eight members to prayer.
Imam Abadallah Madina, an Argentine convert to Islam who was born Ruben Abal Medina, testified that in the end, embassy officials told him they would buy a vehicle in Buenos Aires. http://www.miami.com/mld/miamiherald/6817336.htm
UK urged to aid Iran dissidents
By Matthew Davis
BBC News Online
Human rights campaigners and British Labour MPs are calling on the UK to help secure the release of two London-based dissidents handed over to Iran's secret police during a family visit to Syria.
Abrahim Khodabandeh and Jamil Bassam - of the National Council of Resistance of Iran - were seized on 12 June and flown from Damascus to Tehran.
Mr Khodabandeh's wife Elaheh Azimfar said the pair were being held "under severe torture".
Hundreds of Iranians have taken part in a series of rallies in support of the pair this week in London and a number of other European cities, both outside British embassies and offices of the UN refugee agency.
Win Griffiths, Labour MP for Bridgend - who has formed an action group to press the British Government to do more to secure the pair's release - said they were travelling on proper documents and Syrian visas.
"The British system of justice has handled the extradition proceeding of the ex-Iranian ambassador to Argentina, Hadi Soleimanpour, totally in public.
"That is to be contrasted to the totally secretive ways of the Iranian authorities in the case of Abrahim and Jamil," Mr Griffiths said.
'Disaster in prisons'
Ms Azimfar said: "It seems to me rather callous that the British Government is doing nothing about my husband and his colleague, who are under severe torture, by citing a technicality that since they are political refugees, they are not entitled to consular services.''
But the UK Foreign Office said while it was aware of the case, it was unable to offer any consular assistance to the two men, because they were not British citizens.
"We will continue to express our concerns about human rights in Iran, but that will be as part of our ongoing dialogue with Tehran," a spokesman told BBC News Online.
The pressure comes as reformist leaders in Iran have been expressing renewed concern for the conditions of political prisoners in the country.
The leader of the biggest reformist party, Mohammad Reza Khatami - who is the president's brother - said they were deeply concerned about what he called a disaster in the country's prisons which could dwarf the recent case of Zahra Kazemi.
She was a Canadian-Iranian photo journalist who was arrested in June and died in custody as the result of a blow to the head.
Reformists say there are about 40 prominent political prisoners in the capital alone, including journalists, liberal political figures and student leaders. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/3123336.stm