5 acquitted in Jewish center bombing
Three Argentine judges cleared five men accused of being accessories in the bombing of the Argentine Israeli Mutual Aid Association in 1994.
BY KEVIN GRAY
BUENOS AIRES - A federal court acquitted five men Thursday of being accessories to the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center that killed 85 people, the deadliest terrorist attack on Argentine soil.
In a nationally televised verdict, a three-judge panel cleared four former provincial police officers and a former used car salesman accused of supplying the van used in the bombing, which also injured about 300 people.
The verdict concluded nearly three years of trial -- the longest in Argentine history. The five were not accused of direct involvement in the bombing but were charged as accomplices after prosecutors contended they were involved in a stolen car ring responsible for the delivery of the van.
Prosecutors had sought life sentences for the men, several of whom were ordered to remain in custody pending separate charges unrelated to the bombing probe. Fifteen other former police officers and two civilians were also exonerated on minor charges related to the case.
Jewish community leaders immediately condemned the ruling, which absolved all of the chief suspects in the case.
''This is the worst outcome we could have imagined,'' said Jorge Kirszsenbaum, an official at DAIA, a leading Jewish organization. He urged supporters to join in a demonstration today outside the rebuilt community center.
The rigged van exploded July 18, 1994, leveling the Argentine Israeli Mutual Aid Association. The masterminds of the attack were never identified.
It was the second of two bombings targeting Jews in Argentina during the 1990s. A March 1992 blast destroyed the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 29 people in a case that remains unsolved.
U.S. officials, along with Jewish leaders and some Argentine officials, have said in the past that they suspected pro-Iranian Islamic militants linked to Hezbollah, a radical group based in Lebanon. Tehran repeatedly denied the charges.
After failing to extradite Iranian suspects sought in the case, investigators focused on what has been called ``the local connection.''
More than 1,200 witnesses were summoned or submitted written testimony during the nonjury trial.
The acquittal heaped new controversy on an investigation marred by charges of corruption and missteps that led some prominent Jewish leaders to stop attending the trial.
Jewish groups have claimed the investigation was botched, pointing to a decision by judicial officials earlier this year to remove the lead judge who led much of the investigation after accusations that he bribed a key witness. Two prosecutors also were removed for alleged irregularities.
Jewish community leaders have accused the courts, the police and a succession of Argentine governments of failing to carry out a thorough investigation for fear of embarrassing revelations.
Among those acquitted Thursday was Juan José Ribelli, a former Buenos Aires provincial police chief. He had been accused of leading a gang of former police officers accused of providing the van.
Carlos Alberto Telleldin, accused by investigators of being a stolen car dealer under Ribelli's protection, was also a key defendant. He was accused of delivering the stolen van to the police gang members eight days before the bombing.
Victor Stinfale, Telleldin's lawyer, said the decision finally cleared his client from what he said was a case ``built on lies and false accusations.''
''He's lost 10 years of his life because of this case. The leaders of the Jewish community need to ask him for forgiveness for keeping him in jail so long under false pretenses,'' he said.
The other defendants were Raúl Ibarra, Anastasio Leal and Mario Bareiro.