argentina jewish center.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A federal judge said Thursday he was seeking the "international capture" of former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani and eight others in connection with the 1994 bombing of a Jewish cultural center that killed 85 people.
A special prosecutor sought the order, alleging that the worst terrorist attack ever on Argentine soil was orchestrated by leaders of the Iranian government and entrusted to the Lebanon-based militant group Hizbullah.
Speaking with The Associated Press and a group of local journalists at his offices in the Argentine capital, Judge Rodolfo Canicoba Corral said he had ordered the "international capture" of Rafsanjani and eight others and was seeking the help of Interpol in his effort.
Although he did not specify whether he had already issued arrest warrants, he said he also was issuing an "international exhortation" to Iran to comply with his request, adding he had received "serious" evidence warranting detentions of the nine.
"How Interpol or the Iranian state evaluates this request is beyond my jurisdiction," added Canicoba Corral, cautioning that he expected the "diplomatic process will take a long time."
Separately, Iran's leading diplomatic envoy in Buenos Aires, told the AP that his government would oppose efforts to detain Rafsanjani and other Iranian nationals.
Mohsen Baharvand, charge d'affaires for Iran in Argentina, called the case politically motivated and added Iranian officials would seek a meeting with Interpol officials challenging the judge's order.
"We reject and condemn this accusation," said Baharvand, charging the Argentine case was "fraught with irregularities" and driven by US and Israeli interests.
There appeared to be a complete media blackout in Iran over the arrest warrants on Friday. No radio or TV reported the incident, and officials issued no comments.
The July 1994 bombing of the Jewish cultural center here killed 85 people and injured more than 200 others. Investigators say an explosives-packed van was driven up to the building and detonated.
Iran's government has vehemently denied any involvement in the attack following repeated accusations by the Jewish community and other leaders here.
Baharvand called the effort a "huge propaganda" campaign against his country, adding that Iran was "a scapegoat for the shortcomings of the countries that are not able to find the real perpetrators of this act."
"These are baseless allegations against my country," he added.
Two special prosecutors on October 25 urged Canicoba Corral to seek international and national arrest orders for Rafsanjani, who was Iran's president between 1989 and 1997 and is now the head of the Expediency Council, which mediates between parliament and the clerics in ruling the country.
Alberto Nisman, the lead prosecutor, said last month that the decision to attack the center "was undertaken in 1993 by the highest authorities" of the Iranian government at the time, and that the actual attack was entrusted to Hizbullah.
Nisman also asked Canicoba Corral to detain several other former Iranian officials, including former intelligence chief Ali Fallahijan, former Foreign Minister Ali Ar Velayati, two former commanders of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, two former Iranian diplomats and a former Lebanese Hizbullah security chief for external affairs.
Canicoba Corral confirmed he was seeking those men and also one Iranian not requested last month by the prosecutors: the former ambassador to Buenos Aires, Hadi Soleimanpour.
A botched investigation into the case by judge Juan Jose Galeano was halted in 2004 by federal courts and a special investigation unit was created. Galeano was removed from the case and later stripped of his judgeship.
Nisman announced in November 2005 that investigators believed a 21-year-old Lebanese Hizbullah militant was the suicide bomber.
The attack on the seven-story Jewish center, symbol of a Jewish population numbering more than 200,000, was the second of two attacks 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 has also been blamed on Hizbullah.
Some speculated the 1994 bombing was inspired by Argentina's support for the U.S.-led coalition that expelled Iraq from Kuwait during the Gulf War in the early 1990s. Others said Argentina's Jewish community, one of the largest in Latin America, represented an obvious target for Israel's opponents.
Although Jewish community leaders and others have suspected the involvement of Middle East terrorists, a lack of progress in tracking down the masterminds has made families of the victims increasingly bitter.
In 2004, about a dozen former police officers and an accused trafficker in stolen vehicles were acquitted of charges that they had formed a "local connection" in the bombing.
Israeli Ambassador Rafael Eldad told Argentine television his government was satisfied by what he saw as a "very significant" development and hoped it would ultimately lead to breakthroughs in solving the case.