BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – A criminal attorney who accused former President Carlos Menem of covering up the nation's worst terrorist attack testified Wednesday that he was kidnapped and tortured last week by masked gunmen seeking information about the case.
The apparent abduction of Claudio Lifschitz on Friday has raised new questions about whether powerful people still have something to hide about the 1994 bombing of a Jewish cultural center that killed 85 people.
Lifschitz told The Associated Press that he was driving through Buenos Aires with his secretary on Friday when a van cut him off. Three masked gunmen jumped out, put a plastic bag over his head and shoved him into the van, he said.
He said the men claimed they were members of the government's SIDE intelligence agency and shouted "don't mess with the SIDE!"
He said they carved the initials of the Jewish center — AMIA — on his back, and used a blowtorch to burn a number — 309827 — onto his left forearm.
Lifschitz said he doesn't know the number's significance, but interpreted it as a reminder of Nazi tattoos on concentration camp prisoners.
"I felt a burning and stinging on my arm. And then I felt my back was burning, since they were slashing my back," he said, showing the scars.
Lifschitz could be important to Argentina's long-stymied effort to seek justice in the bombing of the Argentine Israeli Mutual Association building, which prosecutors believe was orchestrated by Iranian officials.
The initial bombing probe was run by Judge Juan Jose Galeano. As his chief aide, Lifschitz had access to inside information.
Six years after the attack, Lifschitz accused Galeano of steering investigators away from evidence that a businessman whose family came from the same village in Syria as Menem's had contact with the bombers, and might have been involved in the bombing itself.
Lifschitz has accused Menem, Menem's brother Munir and the head of SIDE at the time, Hugo Anzorreguy, of pressuring Galeano to cover up the trail at the request of this businessman, Kanoore Edul.
Lifschitz also has alleged that SIDE agents caught Iranians in Argentina on wiretaps before and after the bombing, but that the recordings had disappeared.
Lifschitz told the AP that his kidnappers grilled him about what he knows of SIDE connections to the bombing, as well as the recordings' whereabouts.
He said he told them he had no copies to hand over, and that he has only read transcripts of the alleged conversations, but never listened to the tapes.
A SIDE spokeswoman told the AP that the intelligence agency had no comment.
Lifschitz told the AP he thinks his kidnapping was prompted by declarations he made a day earlier to Judge Ariel Lijo, who is investigating Galeano's handling of the bombing case.
Lifschitz said he was dropped off in the street after an hour and immediately made a police report. Police had already been alerted by his secretary.
Investigations into the bombing and the alleged coverup have regained momentum. Interpol now has seven Iranians and a Lebanese terror suspect on its most-wanted list in connection with the bombing.
Menem has long denied the allegations and accused President Cristina Fernandez and her husband, former President Nestor Kirchner, of persecuting him politically.
Brought into court Monday for the first time, Menem, 78, refused to testify and instead presented a written statement that prosecutors criticized as vague. Under Argentine law, Menem is obliged to appear in court but can decline to answer questions.
Judges have not yet approved charges against the Menems, Edul or Anzorreguy.
Alfredo Neuberger, a member of the Delegation of Argentine Israeli Associations, called for a full investigation of the "grave and strange" attack on Lifschitz.