BERN, Switzerland – Argentina has asked for Swiss help investigating allegations that former President Carlos Menem took bribes to cover up Iranian involvement in the 1994 bombing of a Buenos Aires Jewish center in which 86 people died, the Swiss government said Tuesday.
Federal Justice Department spokesman Folco Galli told The Associated Press that Argentine justice authorities formally asked Switzerland for judicial aid in the case in December.
Officials in Buenos Aires did not immediately comment on whether they sought such help, but Swiss officials said last August that the Argentine government had filed three separate requests for assistance in another investigation of Menem. Swiss officials said in October they have blocked two bank accounts linked to him as a result.
Menem's spokesman did not return telephone calls Tuesday. Last week, Menem lawyer Oscar Salvi denied the former president held a Swiss bank account.
Galli said that the new request for assistance was based on "a suspicion that Iranian authorities transferred $10 million to Menem via a Geneva bank account in return for Menem agreeing to say that there was no evidence that Iran was responsible for the attack."
Argentine investigators want to establish whether accounts held by Menem or a former Iranian official ever existed at the bank. Galli would not name the bank or the Iranian official.
Swiss federal authorities passed the latest Argentine request to justice officials in Geneva last week, Galli said.
An explosives-rigged van leveled the seven-story Argentine Israeli Mutual Aid building in the July 1994 attack. The building was an important symbol of Argentina's 300,000-strong Jewish community, the largest in Latin America.
Iranian terrorists were suspected in the attack, and also were blamed for the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, which claimed 28 lives.
Last September, 15 former police officers and five others went on trial accused of supplying the stolen van used in the attack and an array of other charges, although none was suspected of direct involvement in the bombing. The trial is expected to end in July.
No one else has been charged in the attack. Iran denied involvement, but some have questioned whether Islamic militants might have had a hand, in retaliation for Argentina's participation in the Gulf War. Argentina sent four warships to join a U.S.-led international coalition that ejected Iraqi troops from Kuwait in 1991.
A leading Jewish group said it was outraged and demanded a full public inquiry.
"This is an astounding allegation," said Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center.
He said that if there was Iranian involvement, then Iran would be confirmed as a "center of international terrorism and anti-Semitism."
Geneva justice authorities already are investigating allegations that money in Swiss accounts belonging or linked to Menem came from selling arms in defiance of U.N. embargoes.
On Monday, Geneva Chief Prosecutor Bernard Bertossa said that two accounts, blocked in October, contained $10 million. One of the accounts was held in the name of Menem, his former wife and his daughter. The other belonged to a company, which justice officials have refused to name.
Argentinian authorities allege that Menem, who was president between 1989 and 1999, headed a small group of former government officials who allegedly diverted weapons worth more than $100 million to Croatia and Ecuador, both of which were subject to U.N. embargoes.
Menem was placed under house arrest in June but released in November after Argentina's Supreme Court ruled that prosecutors failed to prove he led the conspiracy. Switzerland's own investigation, however, is continuing.
After his release, Menem said he planned to run again for the presidency in 2003. He has been a fierce critic of President Eduardo Duhalde, who came to power early this month amid Argentina's economic free fall.
Duhalde has blamed the country's economic crisis on the free-market reforms undertaken by Menem in the 1990s.