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Argentine Court Readies Bombing Verdict

September 2, 2004

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) _ Lawyers for five men accused of supporting roles in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center _ the deadliest terror attack on Argentine soil _ gave closing statements Thursday as a court readied its verdict.

Police tightly guarded the federal courthouse in downtown Buenos Aires where a decision was expected later Thursday after the only trial stemming from the explosion.

The bombing on July 18, 1994, killed 85 people and wounded 300 others as a van, rigged with explosives, detonated outside the Argentine Israeli Mutual Aid Association.

The defendants _ four former police officers and one suspected stolen car dealer _ were not accused of direct involvement in the bombing but were charged as accomplices for their parts in a stolen car ring responsible for the sale and delivery of the white van used in the attack. Prosecutors were seeking life sentences. Thursday’s court proceedings were closed to the public.

The explosion leveled the seven-story building, a symbol of Argentina’s 300,000-strong Jewish community, the largest in Latin America. The masterminds of the attack were never identified

It was the second of two bombings 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 remains unsolved.

Jewish and Argentine officials have charged the community center bombing was linked to Islamic fundamentalists and pro-Iranian terrorists, charges denied by Tehran repeatedly.

After failing in efforts to extradite Iranian suspects wanted in the case, investigators have instead focused on what has been called ``the local connection.″

Legal experts have described the trial as the longest in the country’s history. More than 1,200 witnesses were summoned or submitted written testimony over the nearly three-year, non-jury trial. Thursday’s court proceedings were closed to the public.

Jewish groups have claimed the investigation was mishandled, pointing to a decision by judicial officials earlier this year to remove a judge who led much of the investigation after accusations surfaced that he bribed a key witness. At least two prosecutors also were removed for alleged irregularities.

Jewish community leaders have accused the courts, the police and various Argentine governments of failing to carry out the investigation for fear they may lead to embarrassing revelations.

``This has been a long and painful process but we’re hopeful that we’ll finally have taken a step forward,″ said Marta Nercellas, a lawyer for some of the victims.

Among those on trial is Juan Jose Ribelli, a former Buenos Aires provincial police chief. Ribelli is accused of leading a gang of former police officers accused of providing the car.

Carlos Alberto Telleldin, accused by investigators of being a stolen car dealer under Ribelli’s protection, is also a key defendant. He is accused of delivering the stolen van to the police gang members eight days before the bombing. The other defendants were Raul Ibarra, Anastasio Leal and Mario Bareiro.

Hoping to give new impetus to the trial, President Nestor Kirchner last year signed decrees opening secret intelligence documents and ordering intelligence agents to testify about what they know about the bombings.

Jewish leaders hailed the decision, saying it was the first step in years the Argentine government had taken to get to the bottom of the decade-old case.