BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – A federal court acquitted five men Thursday of being accessories to the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center (search) that killed 85 people, the deadliest terrorist attack on Argentine soil.
In a nationally televised verdict, a three-judge panel cleared four former provincial police officers and a former used car salesman accused of supplying the van used in the attack, which also injured about 300 people.
The verdict concluded a three-year trial — the longest in Argentine history. The five 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 van.
Prosecutors had sought life sentences for the five, several of whom were ordered to remain in custody pending separate charges unrelated to the bombing probe. Fifteen others were exonerated of minor charges.
Jewish community leaders condemned the ruling.
"This is the worst outcome we could have imagined," said Jorge Kirszsenbaum (search), an official at DAIA, a leading Jewish organization. He urged supporters to join in a demonstration Friday outside the rebuilt community center.
The rigged van exploded July 18, 1994, outside the Argentine Israeli Mutual Aid Association (search). 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.
U.S. officials, Jewish leaders and some Argentine officials have charged the community center bombing was linked to Islamic fundamentalists and pro-Iranian terrorists, charges denied by Tehran.
After failing to extradite Iranian suspects wanted in the case, investigators instead focused on what has been called "the local connection."
Jewish community leaders attended the federal trial, which was tightly guarded and 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.
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.
Among those acquitted was Juan Jose Ribelli, a former Buenos Aires provincial police chief accused of leading a gang of former police officers accused of providing the van.
Carlos Alberto Telleldin (search), accused by investigators of being a stolen car dealer under Ribelli's protection, was accused of delivering the stolen van to the police gang members eight days before the bombing.
Victor Stinfale, Telleldin's lawyer, said the decision cleared his client from a case "built on lies and false accusations."
"The leaders of the Jewish community need to ask him for forgiveness for keeping him in jail so long under false pretenses," he said.
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. Jewish leaders had hailed the decision.
A victims lawyer said she was "stunned" by Thursday's decision.
"I wasn't prepared for this," said Marta Nercellas. She called for a "serious" investigation. "Hopefully one day we'll have the answers we're looking for."