One day next month, as they have done every July for more than a decade, relatives and friends of the 85 people who were killed when a colossal bomb destroyed the Argentinean Jewish community's main offices in 1994 will gather in downtown Buenos Aires to mourn and protest.
But this year's gathering, hard though this may be to believe, may actually be more bleak and depressing than some of those that have preceded it. For the mourners of 2006 will gather more certain than ever of the knowledge that the perpetrators who sent their loved ones to their deaths will never be brought to justice.
They've known for many years, of course, that the government's investigation of the AMIA (Argentine Jewish Mutual Association) bombing was stalemated and terribly flawed. The initial insistence by Argentina's then-president, Carlos Menem, that he would hunt down the killers to the ends of the earth, had long since become a sick joke.
But when they gathered last year, it was in the shadow of an earthshaking new court ruling that had dismissed the entire investigation as an utterly compromised fabrication, a work of fiction, deceit and political expediency, and had ordered all defendants released and the investigators themselves indicted for obstructing justice.
And as of this year, they will meet up only too aware that the most extensive and expensive probe and trial in the entire history of Argentina is just that - history. The impeccably planned mass murder of innocents at a soft Jewish target in a friendly capital is still being investigated, but the original probe has been shut down, and the new investigating judge is having to start afresh, with no realistic prospect of success. Instead, the Argentinean justice system is now preoccupied with a second probe - into the cover-up.
If it is pursued effectively, this second probe will likely extend all the way to Menem. But it will do nothing to identify, much less punish, the original culprits in what was the worst anti-Semitic attack outside Israel since the Holocaust and one that remains Argentina's worst-ever case of terrorism.
The collapse of the original investigation, and the initial revelations of the new probe into the cover-up, have exposed a degree of cynicism and disrespect for morality that one would have liked to think had no place in today's governance of enlightened nations. The few "facts" we thought had been painstakingly established about the blast, the perceived triumphs of detection that we believed were taking us closer to the killers, have now been reduced to nothing more than unreliable speculation. The few characters in this vicious drama in whose integrity we thought we could believe - including the seemingly vigorous, conscientious investigating judge and even one of the most apparently honorable leaders of the Jewish community - have themselves turned out to be rotten and crooked.
"When I look at the reports I wrote over the years, I feel terrible" says Sergio Kiernan, the amiable and dogged Argentinean Jewish journalist who wrote 10 annual assessments of the progress of the investigation on behalf of the American Jewish Committee. "It was all a pack of lies. Or maybe some of it wasn't. But I don't know anymore. And we're never going to know."
BEYOND THE unarguable fact that on July 18, 1994, an explosion ripped through the seven-story AMIA building at 633 Pasteur Street, killing 85 people and injuring over 200 more, what we thought we knew was that the blast was the work of a suicide bomber named Ibrahim Hussein Berro, a 29-year-old Shi'ite Muslim of Lebanese origin who had arrived in the country a few days earlier and who phoned home shortly before carrying out the deed to tell his family he was on his way to heaven. Now, says Kiernan down the phone from Buenos Aires, "we're not remotely sure of that." There's no untainted empirical evidence of Berro's identity. His family, for what it's worth, insists he had nothing to do with the bombing.
We thought we knew that the bomb, comprising explosives smuggled in from Brazil, was transported to the building and detonated in a stolen White Renault Traffic van, whose engine had been found in the rubble. We thought we knew that it had been transferred to the bombers by a small-time local criminal, Carlos Telleldin, via a group of Buenos Aires policemen.
We thought we knew that the entire attack was hatched in Teheran - ordered at an August 1993 meeting of the Iranian Supreme Council for National Security chaired by the Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and attended by some of the country's most senior political leaders, including then-president Hashemi Rafsanjani. We thought we knew that it was overseen in part by diplomats and officials at the Iranian embassy in Buenos Aires, including the cultural attach , Mosher Rabani, and the ambassador, Hadi Soleimanpour, who had been kicked out of Spain a few years earlier for alleged links to Islamic extremists. We thought we knew that Hizbullah had played a central role, with the assistance of corrupt local police and security officials.
SOME OF the above may be true, but we doubt it all, now, because the investigating judge, Juan Jose Galeano, whose youth, determination and purported honesty had so impressed us, has turned out to be corrupt. He allegedly paid Telleldin a $400,000 bribe, with money provided by Argentina's State Intelligence Agency, to frame the Buenos Aires policemen, possibly in an effort to discredit the capital's governor, a political rival of Menem's. Galeano destroyed evidence. Galeano made illegal arrests.
Obstructing justice rather than seeking it, Galeano and much of his "investigating" team, says Kiernan, are now facing lengthy jail terms. But the corruption went much higher. Galeano and his associates were aided and abetted, according to the three-judge tribunal that trashed his probe and freed all his defendants, by "three branches of government that gave him political support and cover for his irregular and unlawful acts."
"The investigation was pathetic, a travesty," says Joe Goldman, Buenos Aires-based author of Smoke Screens, a book on the AMIA affair. "Rather than going after the real culprits, they decided who they wanted to find guilty and framed them."
THE IRANIANS may well have been at least partially to blame, reasons Kiernan. The Iranian-backed Hizbullah, in that pre-al-Qaida era of the early- to mid-90s, was probably the only terror group with the global reach to execute attacks like the AMIA blast and the all-too similar Buenos Aires bombing, at the Israeli embassy two years earlier, which killed 29 people. Indeed, a claim of responsibility for the March 1992 embassy blast termed it revenge for Israel's killing in southern Lebanon a month earlier of the Hizbullah leader Abbas Musawi.
But, Kiernan asks, why rule out Syria, which had motivations and capabilities of its own? The Argentinean government issued a statement immediately after the AMIA bombing declaring that Syria had no role in the attack, an assertion swiftly confirmed by both the US and Israel, says Kiernan. "Yet there was no way on earth anyone could have reached so definitive a conclusion so quickly. Ruling people out takes time too," he notes dryly. Geo-political expediencies, he suspects, were playing their part even at this earliest of stages.
Why the focus on Syria? "There is no ex-Iranian community in Buenos Aires that could have helped with what would have been the essential local planning for the bomb," argues Kiernan. "You have to search hard to find a Shi'ite here. But Syrians? There are two million Argentineans of Syrian descent."
One of those two million, of course, is Carlos Menem, the son of Syrian immigrants, previously married to a Syrian woman, with a sister-in-law who had been a Syrian government official. And Menem had thoroughly angered the Syrians as president, allying himself firmly with the US, sending warships to the first Gulf War, choosing Israel as the destination for his first official presidential trip and, most directly infuriating for the Assad regime, reneging on a pledge to help Damascus with Argentinean nuclear and missile technology.
From the point of view of Argentina's 250,000-strong Jewish community, perhaps the most dispiriting aspect of this dreadful saga is the role played by Ruben Beraja, the then-respected banker much praised for calm, authoritative leadership in the immediate aftermath of the blast. In what had always seemed a highly curious shift, Beraja, at the time the president of DAIA, Argentina's Jewish umbrella organization, had moved from criticizing the Argentinean government for the slow pace of the probe and for "cutting a deal with Iran to avoid a third bombing," to defending the Menem government against charges of foot-dragging and even apologizing when Jewish criticism grew raucous.
Now it is being alleged that Beraja played an active role in the cover-up, cuddling close to the Menem government in exchange for financial assistance when his bank was failing. Already on trial for conspiracy and fraud charges relating to the collapse of his Banco Mayo - a failing that wrecked the finances of much of Argentina's Jewish establishment - he is now being targeted, along with the unsavory collection of judges, attorneys, politicians and officials, by the new crop of investigators probing Galeano's web of fabrication.
HOWEVER PARADOXICALLY, Sergio Kiernan says that when he attends next month's AMIA memorial ceremony, he'll actually feel a little better than in years past. Although he knows now, he says, that "we'll never get to the bottom of what happened," he feels a small sense of relief that the lies and corruption surrounding the original investigation are being exposed, "that finally, after 12 years, someone in authority is telling us something truthful."
A little truth, perhaps, but certainly no justice. And least of all for Carlos Menem.
Soon after the bombing, I interviewed Menem in his presidential office. Clearly agitated, he asserted that he now feared for his life at the hands of the terrorists: "I too am under threat," he wailed. "I am considered a traitor to the Arab cause."
Nonetheless, Menem vowed to place "all the state's resources" at the disposal of the investigators, root out the culprits, and sever ties with any nation that had played a role in dispatching them. Plainly, he did nothing of the kind.
Yet Menem, the flamboyant populist at the heart of Argentina's moral failure over the AMIA bombing, has likely managed to place himself beyond the reach of the new probe. Late last year, the two-term ex-president, today 75, got himself elected to the nation's Senate, where naturally he enjoys immunity from prosecution. "Stripping him of parliamentary immunity would require a vote of his Senate peers," notes Kiernan. "It's not an absolute guarantee against arrest, but it's as good as it gets in terms of protection."
As good as it gets in terms of protection. If only Menem had sought something similar for his Jewish community, for his nation.