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It’s a terrorist attack: 85 killed. Hundreds wounded. Decades go by and no one is brought to justice. Finally, that may change.
An important bill that has just been introduced in the Argentine Parliament aims to enable the trial “in absentia” of those accused of having perpetrated the 1994 bombing of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) building, the worst terrorist attack ever suffered by a Latin American country. As is widely known, the accused, some of whom still have strong ties with the Iranian government, have successfully eluded the Argentine justice system for 23 years.
The proposed law would also apply to other serious crimes contained in international human rights treaties, that have acquired constitutional status in Argentina (such as the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and the Inter-American Convention on Forced Disappearance of Persons), as well as to crimes contained in conventions to which Argentina may accede and give constitutional status in the future.
The idea of allowing trials in absentia in Argentina gained momentum in 2013, when the government of former president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner signed the infamous “Memorandum of Understanding” (MOU) with the Iranian regime.
Through this pact, an attempt was made to establish a binational commission to “re-investigate” the AMIA case.
Argentina’s main Jewish organizations, and a large part of the opposition, repudiated this pact, which would have given the accused the power to revise everything the Argentine justice system had done so far. As a result, president de Kirchner urged them to make other proposals that would “move the case forward.” The trial in absentia appeared then as an option that could give the victims and their families at least some measure of justice. The subsequent ruling of an Argentine Federal Court, that declared the MOU unconstitutional, also mentioned as a legitimate option the possibility of judging the accused in absentia, given their “voluntary” decision not to appear before the Argentine courts.
The bill is controversial and, even within the Jewish community, there are many who oppose the idea that the accused in the AMIA case be tried in absentia, as they believe this could harm rather than help the case. Indeed, many analysts question the constitutionality of the bill, given that the Argentine Constitution guarantees, in its article 18, the right of defense. However, the bill allows the defendants, among other things, to subsequently appear and request a comprehensive review of the judgment, with ample opportunities to defend themselves. Therefore, the right of due process is sufficiently guaranteed.
What should be kept in mind is that the constitutional guarantees of a democratic state should not be used in such an abusive way as to ensure impunity for the perpetrators of crimes of this magnitude. The accused in the AMIA case have deliberately evaded the Argentine justice system for too many years, and are being protected by the Iranian regime.
It is evident that the main reason the Iranians signed the MOU with Argentina is that they wanted the Interpol alerts that Argentina had been able to secure against the accused to fall, as their freedom of movement was being restricted.
These alerts, in fact, are due to expire this year, and the Iranians have hired important lawyers in Paris to prevent them from being renewed, as was recently reported by the press. The Argentine government, in turn, has appointed the former head of the National Audit Office, Leandro Despouy, to the commission for the control of Interpol’s Files (alerts) and hopes to be able to renew them for another five years.
In this regard, a condemnatory ruling in absence against the accused would facilitate the maintenance of the Interpol alerts and would also give greater strength to eventual extradition requests.
And, of course, it would also allow the victims, their families and the people of Argentina to know the truth about who planned and executed this terrible criminal act.
Trials in absentia exist in countries with very respectable legal traditions, such as France and Italy. In France, for example, this modality was used to judge former Argentine dictator Alfredo Astiz, for the disappearance of Léonie Henriette Duquet and Alice Domon, two French nuns, in 1977. For its part, Italy tried Nazi criminal Erich Priebke, who was in Argentina at the time, in absentia, in the 1990s, and he was subsequently extradited.
Twenty-three years is too long for the victims, their relatives and the entire Argentine society to wait for justice, and every effort should be made to unveil the truth and to finally see that the arm of the law reaches the perpetrators of this heinous crime.
The author is the B’nai B’rith International special adviser on Latin American affairs. She is an attorney by training and holds a graduate degree in international law and diplomacy from The Fletcher School of Tufts University.