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Argentina: many are suspected in AMIA coverup

While the US media focused on the late Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman's Jan. 14 charges against President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, many people have been accused over the years of blocking the investigation into the deadly 1994 bombing of the Argentine Jewish Mutual Association (AMIA) building. The people suspected include a former president, a judge, an intelligence chief, and officials of two foreign governments. After an inquiry that has gone on for 21 years under several different governments, Argentine prosecutors have still not won a single conviction in the case.

In May 2008 Nisman charged former president Carlos Saúl Menem (1989-1999) with impeding the initial investigation during his presidency. In March 2012 federal judge Ariel Lijo ordered Menem to stand trial on the charges, along with the judge who headed the original investigation, Juan José Galeano; intelligence service directors Hugo Anzorreguy and Juan Carlos Anchezar; and two commanders of the federal police. The trial still hasn't taken place. Formerly an opponent of President Fernández, Menem is now a political ally and seems to be having a relatively easy time in the courts. He is also implicated in the government's clandestine sales of 6,500 tons of arms to Ecuador and Croatia from 1991 to 1995. In March 2013 an appeals court found him guilty of "aggravated smuggling," but he currently enjoys immunity as a senator for La Rioja province.

Menem was allied with the US government while he was president, and the US embassy was clearly upset when Nisman filed charges against him in the AMIA case. Nisman apologized for not giving the embassy advance warning, according to a May 27 confidential cable obtained by the Wikileaks group. Then-US ambassador Earl Anthony Wayne, now the ambassador to Mexico, complained in another confidential cable two days later that the Menem charges "could complicate international efforts to bring the Iranian indictees to justice." "Nisman may still be currying favor from the Casa Rosada [Argentina's presidential palace] with a view to a favorable judicial appointment in the future," Wayne claimed. The May 27 cable emphasized the US government's interest in keeping the investigation centered on Iran and away from Menem: "Legatt officers [legal attachés] have for the past two years recommended to Nisman that he focus on the perpetrators of the terrorist attack and not on the possible mishandling of the first investigation." (Buenos Aires Herald, Jan. 16)

Although never formally charged, another coverup suspect is Antonio Horacio Stiles, better known as "Jaime Stiusso" (or "Stiuso"), the director of operations for the federal Intelligence Service (SI) until Fernández replaced him in December. Stiusso entered intelligence work in 1972, serving under the highly repressive 1976-1983 military junta and then under all governments since the restoration of democracy. He is said to have been close to Nisman, and also to have worked closely with Israel's Mossad and the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Stiusso seemed to have a great deal of power in the government. Then-justice minister Gustavo Beliz had to resign his post on July 25, 2004 after tangling with the intelligence director. Beliz went on television the same day to charge that Stiusso had "messed up" the AMIA investigation. Beliz also said Argentina's intelligence apparatus was a "black hole," a "parallel state" and a "secret police without any controls," and he described Stiusso as someone "the whole world fears because they say he's dangerous and can have you killed." (La Nación, Argentina, Dec. 18; El País, Madrid, Jan. 25)

Although the Iranian government would obviously have reasons to block the inquiry if Iranian officials were involved in the AMIA bombing, there have also been accusations against Israeli officials. In January 2014 former Israeli ambassador to Argentina Yitzhak Aviran (1993-2000) announced that his country had killed most of the perpetrators of the attack. "The vast majority of the guilty parties are in another world, and this is something we did," he said. Argentine foreign minister Héctor Timerman noted that Aviran's comments "would imply that Israel hid information from Argentine courts, blocking new evidence from appearing." Timerman demanded that Aviran tell Argentine prosecutors whether Israel had further information.

Some Argentines noted that suspect "suicides" like Nisman's are hardly unprecedented in the country. Claims of suicide have been questioned in at least five other cases, all of which took place during Menem's presidency or involved Menem or people close to him. In three of the cases, the victim was about to testify or was considering doing so.

Former Customs head Brig. Gen. Rodolfo Echegoyen (or Etchegoyen) was shot in the head in his studio in December 1990; as in the Nisman case, there were no traces of gunpowder on his hands. Echegoyen was reportedly investigating the Edcadassa company, owned by members of the Yoma family, former in-laws of then-president Menem. Postal magnate and former Menem associate Alfredo Yabrán was found dead of apparently self-inflicted gunshot wounds in one of his country estates in May 1998; he was sought for questioning in the January 1997 murder of photojournalist José Luis Cabezas, who had been investigating Yabrán's business activities. Naval captain Horacio Pedro Estrada was found dead in his Buenos Aires apartment in August 1998; again, no traces of gunpowder were found, and the right-handed Estrada was shot in the left side of his head. Estrada was reportedly considering testifying in the case of arms sales to Ecuador and Croatia. Also in August 1998, Marcelo Cattáneo was found hanging in an abandoned structure on a Buenos Aires university campus; he was charged with paying bribes in a corruption case involving the state-owned Banco Nacion bank and US computer giant IBM. His family expressed doubts about the suicide hypothesis. Lourdes di Natale, once a secretary to former Menem in-law Emir Yoma, supposedly fell or jumped to her death from her apartment balcony while drunk in March 2003, but no alcoholic beverage was found in her apartment and the amount of alcohol in her blood should have made her incapable of getting on the balcony. She was about to testify in the case of the smuggled arms. (Diario Uno, Argentina, June 18, 2012; Página 12, Jan. 20)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, January 25.

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