This week, the latest AMIA trial came to a close in Buenos Aires, with the final verdicts read for those accused of obstructing justice in an alleged cover-up of the bombing. Though this particular trial began over three years ago, it traces its origin back almost 25 years, to the 1994 bombing of the AMIA building, the main Jewish community center in Argentina. Several of those standing trial were found guilty—including former prosecuting Judge Juan José Galeano (sentenced to six years) and former chief of the SIDE—Argentina’s intelligence service—Hugo Anzorreguy (sentenced to four-and-a-half years).
More notable than who was sentenced was who walked away uncharged: Raúl Beraja, former president of the DAIA—a Jewish community organization—and Carlos Menem, the former Argentine president. The ruling affirmed for many Argentines a pattern of impunity in this case, again calling into question the possibility of true justice and accountability.
It is worthwhile to return to the first years after the bombing to understand why this is such a difficult ruling. In 1994, the AMIA bombing—one of the worst terrorist attacks in Argentina’s history—targeted the country’s largest Jewish community center, killing 85 people and wounding hundreds. The attack, as well as the lack of an obvious motivation, left the community reeling. Family members of the victims mourned their loved ones and gathered together to pursue justice. That took on the form of weekly and monthly protests to remember the dead and demand justice and truth. These were also years of tremendous impunity in Argentina outside of the AMIA case; many perpetrators of the crimes of the dictatorship (including torture and forced disappearances) walked away free, the beneficiaries of a time when amnesty laws—since overturned—protected them. And yet, despite the impunity of the 1990s, family members of the AMIA victims did not stop their quest, gathering week after week, month after month, year after year in public squares and streets to demand a just resolution to the tragedy.
In those first years, as family members of the victims grieved their loved ones, tried to make sense of what happened, and find out who was responsible, the pain of their loss was only exacerbated by the problematic and corrupt investigation that followed. On July 18, 1997, three years had passed since the attack, and another commemoration was taking place, on Pasteur Street in downtown Buenos Aires (the location where the bombing took place). Among those in the crowd was then-president Menem. Laura Ginsberg, who lost her husband in the attack, along with other family members of victims, gave a speech addressing Menem: “Yo acuso,” she shouted, “I accuse the government of Menem and Duhalde of impunity…” The “Yo acuso,” was also intended to connect the handling of the AMIA bombing to another historical denunciation of a government (when Émile Zola wrote “J’Accuse” to the French government in 1898, accusing them of an anti-Semitic cover-up in relation to their treatment of Alfred Dreyfuss). Yet, here, the accusation marked a break, with someone connected to the Jewish community daring to publicly challenge the national leader.
The question of impunity permeated the years that followed. After years of waiting, a trial related to the AMIA bombing finally began in 2001, ending in 2004 without any further clarity. In 2005, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights officially determined that Argentina had failed to provide justice in this case. It was, at best, a nominal advance, but it was, at least, a recognition of the miscarriage of justice and how the case was emblematic of a broader failure of the system. And of course, in 2015, prosecutor Alberto Nisman was found dead in his apartment in the course of his investigation of this case. His death remains a source of controversy, with more open questions than answers.
This latest trial represented a chance to establish some idea of what happened, at least in the immediate years after the bombing. Those on trial were alleged to be involved in various ways in the problematic investigation of the attack and obstructing justice. Family members of the victims, including the groups Memoria Activa and A.P.E.M.I.A., were a part of the trial process, both officially and as spectators, dutifully watching the proceedings in the Federal Oral Tribunal Number 2, and hoping for a verdict that would shed some light and offer the promise of justice. Yet, now that the sentences have been read, it is almost as if they were standing vigil for a justice that may never come.
In his last opportunity to speak in the trial this week, Menem reportedly chose to remain silent. And it felt like another silence emanated from the court in their verdict of not guilty. Back in 1997, Laura Ginsberg ended her speech that morning, invoking the victims. She said, “They deserve justice, because wherever they may be… only after finding justice will our dead be able to rest in peace.”
Now, even though this particular trial is over, the question persists of what kind of peace might remain for the living.