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Court to give verdict in Argentine Jewish center bombing cover-up

The Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) Jewish community center building, pictured in 2017 during the commemoration of the 23rd anniversary of the bombing
The Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) Jewish community center building, pictured in 2017 during the commemoration of the 23rd anniversary of the bombing AFP/File

Buenos Aires (AFP)

No one has ever been convicted over the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires that has haunted Argentine politics for decades, but that could change Thursday.

Former president Carlos Menem, his intelligence chief and the judge in charge of the initial probe face jail if found guilty of staging a cover-up.

They are among 13 defendants who could be incarcerated for a slew of corruption and obstruction of justice charges when a court in Buenos Aires hands down its verdict after a four-year trial.

No one ever claimed responsibility for the bombing of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) center, which killed 85 people and injured hundreds, though Argentina -- and Israel -- have long pointed the finger at Iran.

They suspect a Lebanese Hezbollah operative of carrying out the suicide bombing on Tehran's orders.

But decades of investigation in Argentina have been roiled by political interference and allegations of corruption.

"We hope they will all be found guilty. For us, this trial is as important as the investigation into the attack because they did not allow us to know the truth," said Adriana Reisfeld, president of an association for families of the victims, a party in the case.

Prosecutors have called for a four-year jail sentence for Menem, Argentina's president from 1989-1999, on grounds that he ordered a cover-up.

Aged 88, Menem is expected to be in Buenos Aires' Comodoro Py courthouse Thursday when the verdict in the trial is read out.

- Testimony deepened the mystery -

In his evidence to the trial, the aging statesman was enigmatic, deepening the mystery by effectively saying state secrets meant he was prevented from presenting bombshell evidence.

His lawyer explained to the court in 2016 that Menem declined to reveal state secrets "that could affect the current government, the interests of the nation, and peaceful coexistence with other nations."

Menem was sentenced to seven years in prison in 2013 for violating an international arms embargo in a weapons deal. Again, in 2015, he received a four-and-a-half-year sentence for bribing officials.

But his status as a member of the Argentine senate means that he has, so far, benefited from immunity from imprisonment.

Prosecutors have requested a heavier sentence be imposed on the former judge in the case, Juan Jose Galeano. Galeano has protested his innocence, insisting he had always sought the truth during his 10 years in charge of the investigation.

Two other high-profile defendants are former intelligence chief Hugo Anzorreguy and the former president of Buenos Aires' Jewish community -- the second biggest in the Americas after New York -- Ruben Beraja.

Prosecutor Miguel Yivoff voiced regret during the trial that one lead in the case, known as the Syrian track, was ruled out during the investigation.

That track led to Syrian businessman Alberto Kanoore Edul, a boyhood friend of Menem.

The prosecutor said that on the day of the attack, the businessman had spoken with used-car dealer Carlos Telledin, the former owner of the van used to carry out the AMIA bombing.

Galeano, the ex-judge, said in his defense that the "investigation of the attack on the AMIA was victim of the internal struggles of the intelligence services."

He is accused of paying $400,000 to Telledin, who supplemented his used car dealership business with work as a police informant. Prosecutors say Galeano paid him to implicate police in the bombing.

Galeano has denied acting on Menem's orders and said the money was needed to get to the truth behind the attack.

Menem is accused of ordering Galeano to drop the Syrian track of the investigation implicating Edul and other businessmen linked to the purchase of ammonal -- a mix of ammonium nitrate and aluminum powder -- the explosive used in the attack.

Prosecutors separately indicted ex-president Cristina Kirchner in 2017 for whitewashing Iran's alleged role in the attack.

Kirchner had the Argentine Congress's backing for a 2012 political deal with Iran to allow Iranian suspects be questioned in their own country by Argentine prosecutors.

The deal was never ratified by Tehran, but prosecutors investigating Kirchner for corruption say the deal was effectively a coverup to absolve Iran in return for lucrative trade deals with her government.

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