On Feb. 6, former Argentine president Carlos Menem (1989-1999), now a senator from La Rioja province, made his first appearance at an arms smuggling trial that began in Buenos Aires on Oct. 16. Menem and 17 other defendants are charged with involvement in the government’s clandestine sale of arms to Ecuador and Croatia from 1991 to 1995 in violation of international agreements. He declined to attend previously, claiming health problems. In his Feb. 6 appearance—before federal judges Luis Imas, Horacio Artabe and Gustavo Losada—Menem failed to make any declaration on the smuggling charges, citing “pending questions, including appeals.” He could face 12 years in prison if convicted, although the Senate would have to vote to lift the immunity he enjoys as a legislator.
In a separate case Menem is charged with obstructing the initial investigation into the July 1994 bombing of the Argentine Jewish Mutual Association (AMIA) building in Buenos Aires. The attack, generally considered the worst anti-Semitic violence since World War II, killed at least 85 people and injured 300; the Argentine government blames it on the Iranian government and the Lebanese organization Hezbollah. In May 2008 prosecutor Alberto Nisman asked federal judge Ariel Lijo for an arrest warrant for Menem and others. “We have determined the existence of a plan that was put together at the highest political level in the 1990s…to cover up and give [immunity] to one of the people who appeared as a main suspect in the local connection,” he told Argentine television. The cover-up included the suspension of searches and a sudden end to any activity on the case, Nisman charged.
In October 2008 Judge Lijo ordered Menem and his brother Munir—along with former judge Juan Jose Galeano, former State Intelligence Service (SIDE) head Hugo Anzorregui and others—to make declarations on the charges, which carry a maximum sentence of 21 years in prison. Menem, who was a strong US ally during his years in office, has declined to make a declaration. In this case too he has claimed health problems. (Clarin, Argentina, Feb. 7; Telam, Argentina, Feb. 6; Ha’aretz, Israel, May 22, 2008 from Reuters; BBC, Nov. 13, 2008)
From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Feb. 8
See our last post on Argentina.