BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Argentina’s former president Carlos Menem went on trial Thursday with 12 co-accused for allegedly obstructing the investigation into the 1994 suicide bombing of a Buenos Aires Jewish center that killed 85 people.
The unsolved bombing outside the Argentine Jewish Mutual Association (AMIA), the deadliest terror attack in Argentine history, still haunts the country two decades later.
It recaptured the headlines this year when the prosecutor leading the investigation, Alberto Nisman, died in murky circumstances.
Menem, who ruled from 1989 to 1999 and is now an 85-year-old senator, was absent from the federal criminal court in Buenos Aires as the trial got under way. His lawyer said he was unable to attend because of health problems. But the announcement of his absence drew loud jeers from some in the courtroom.
“It’s shameful. He just wanted to avoid the cameras,” said Diana Malamud, whose husband died in the blast.
Menem has already been convicted in a separate case of illegally selling arms to Croatia and Ecuador, but has never served his seven-year sentence thanks to the immunity he enjoys as a senator.
In the current case, the former president is charged with ordering Judge Juan José Galeano — also on trial — to drop the so-called “Syrian trail,” which led investigators to suspect late Syrian president Hafez al-Assad of involvement in the bombing plot. During the initial probe, investigators hypothesized Assad had possibly ordered the bombing to take revenge on Menem for reneging on a promise to sell Argentine-manufactured arms to Syria after coming under pressure from the United States.
Menem, who is of Syrian origin, allegedly told Galeano to back off investigations into Alberto Kanoore Edul, a fellow Syrian-Argentine whose family had ties to Menem’s family.
The accused also include two former prosecutors; Menem’s intelligence chief, Hugo Anzorreguy; and a fence for stolen cars named Carlos Telleldin who supplied the van used in the bombing.
Galeano is accused of paying Telleldin a $400,000 bribe to falsely accuse a group of police officers of involvement in the bombing. The initial investigation, which Galeano oversaw from 1994 to 2003, resulted in a shambolic trial that was thrown out halfway through in 2004 on grounds of serious procedural violations.
All those accused were acquitted.
The investigation was then assigned to Nisman, the late prosecutor, who concluded the attack was in fact carried out by the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah on orders from Iran — a claim Tehran denies. In 2007, Nisman ordered arrest warrants for former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and other high-ranking Iranian officials.
In 2013, Argentina and Iran reached a deal for the suspects to instead be investigated by a joint commission. Nisman alleged the deal, which has never been implemented, was a conspiracy between the Iranians and members of current Argentine President Cristina Kirchner’s government.
Last January he filed a report accusing Kirchner of trying to protect the Iranian suspects in exchange for oil and trade benefits. He was due to present his findings to Congress when he was found dead in his bathroom with a bullet through the head on January 18.
The investigation into his death is ongoing.
His case against Kirchner has since been thrown out for lack of evidence, a decision upheld by two appeals courts.
The AMIA attack, which also wounded 300 people, came two years after another bombing at the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires. That blast killed 29 people and wounded 200.
Israel accuses Iran of orchestrating both bombings.
The court file on the AMIA bombing spans 600 volumes and 113,000 pages, but the investigation is hampered by gaping holes. No fingerprints or DNA samples were ever taken at the scene.
The trial “is a new chance to dig up the truth and learn what actually happened in this investigation,” said Jorge Knoblovits, secretary general of the Delegation of Argentine Jewish Associations (DAIA).