Argentines Criticize Investigation of '94 Attack
By LARRY ROHTER
BUENOS AIRES, July 18 - With President Néstor Kirchner looking on, Argentine Jewish leaders on Sunday marked the 10th anniversary of a deadly anti-Semitic attack here by delivering blistering attacks on his predecessors and European institutions they say have blocked efforts to bring the perpetrators to justice.
The bombing killed 85 people and wounded about 300 at a Jewish recreation and education center, commonly known as AMIA, its Spanish initials. Though a group of police officers are on trial for having procured the vehicle in which the bomb was placed, Argentina has been thwarted in efforts to prosecute Iranian government officials it says organized the attack.
In a sharp speech, Abraham Kaul, the president of the community group, criticized Britain's refusal to allow the extradition of a former Iranian ambassador to Argentina who was indicted here last year, and also complained about a lack of cooperation in Switzerland in determining how the attack was financed. "They have betrayed us," Mr. Kaul said.
But the harshest criticisms were reserved for Carlos Saúl Menem, who was president of Argentina at the time of the bombing and has been accused by a defector from Iranian intelligence of having deliberately undermined the official inquiry into the attack. Mr. Menem is now living in self-imposed exile in neighboring Chile rather than submitting to questioning in relation to corruption charges pending against him here.
"Carlos Menem is the culprit and is a criminal fugitive," said Marina Degtiar, who spoke on behalf of relatives of the victims. Because of Mr. Menem's efforts to cover up the case, she said, "so many facts still lie with impunity beneath the ruins."
There has long been resentment here over the botched investigation, but the anger has grown in recent months as a result of the train bombings that killed 190 people in Madrid in March. Although the Spanish government initially blamed the attack on Basque separatists, its ability to identify and apprehend fairly quickly the people suspected of being Islamic militant organizers has been repeatedly contrasted here with the Argentine government's ineptitude or unwillingness to act.
In recent months, there has also been talk here of seeking "a Lockerbie solution," in which Argentina would relinquish some of its legal claims so that the accused Iranians could stand trial in a third country. But Iran, which threatened to "adopt appropriate measures" if Argentina did not revoke the indictments, has offered no indication it is interested in such a deal.
With the recent release of government documents, ordered by Mr. Kirchner, Jewish community groups are also pushing for a belated investigation into a Syrian link to the attack. Among the questions they have raised is why Mr. Menem, himself of Syrian descent, allowed various Syrian citizens who were then under surveillance to leave Argentina in the wake of the bombing, including one who is said to be a cousin of Hafez al-Assad, who was then the president of Syria.
Mr. Kirchner, who took office 14 months ago, is the first Argentine president to attend the annual AMIA ceremonies. In April, he described the unsolved case as such "a national disgrace" that it required him to "find the historical truth," and on Sunday he was hugged, kissed and greeted with cries of "keep on pushing, Mr. President," by relatives of many of the victims.
But his wife, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, generated criticism last week when in an interview with a local Jewish publication she suggested that some Jewish leaders aided in the cover-up. Mrs. Kirchner, a prominent senator and member of a legislative commission that also investigated the bombing, was understood to be referring to an ally of Mr. Menem who controlled a financially troubled bank that received questionable government support.
Mr. Kirchner is scheduled to meet Monday with members of a delegation representing the American Jewish Committee. In an interview, David A. Harris, executive director of the group, said resolving the AMIA case will "require extraordinary political will and courage" and urged Mr. Kirchner "to translate good intentions into concrete results."
"That is going to be a mountain of a challenge," Mr. Harris said. "It's late in the day."