Argentina's Menem Denies Bribes

By: The Associated Press

The New York Times, January 23, 2002



Buenos Aires, Argentina -- Former President Carlos Menem has denied charges Wednesday that he took bribes to cover up alleged Iranian involvement in a 1994 bombing of a Jewish center that killed 86 people.

On Tuesday, a Swiss official told The Associated Press that Argentine authorities formally asked Switzerland for help in investigating the case, including allegations that Menem had built up a $10 million Swiss bank account.

``Let me say this again: it is absolutely false that I have a bank account in Switzerland,'' Menem said in a statement. ``And it is also a lie that I had any contact with those responsible for that terrible bombing.''

Officials in Buenos Aires have not confirmed that they have sought such help, but Swiss officials said last August the Argentine government filed three separate requests for assistance in another investigation of the former president.

With the probes still pending, Swiss officials say they have already blocked two bank accounts linked to him.

Swiss Federal Justice Department spokesman Folco Galli said Tuesday that Argentina's 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.''

Menem, president from 1989-1999, insisted Wednesday that he was the victim of a smear campaign engineered by his political enemies, calling the charges ``premeditated actions intended to destroy me morally.''

The bombing in July 1994 killed 86 people after a van rigged with explosives leveled the seven-story Argentine Israeli Mutual Aid building, an important symbol of Argentina's 300,000-strong Jewish community, the largest in Latin America.

``I believe this is a baseless accusation that has exceeded the limits of what's tolerable,'' Menem said in a one-page statement released late Wednesday.

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.

Fifteen former police officers and five other people went on trial last September accused of supplying the stolen van used in the 1994 attack, although no one was suspected of direct involvement in the bombing. The trial is expected to end in July.

Iran has denied involvement, but some have questioned whether Islamic militants might have played a role 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.

The flamboyant, two-term president has been plagued by several corruption scandals that tarnished his legacy in the final years of his decade in power.

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.

Argentine authorities allege that Menem headed a small group of former government officials who diverted weapons worth more than $100 million to Croatia and Ecuador during the 1990s when both countries were subject to U.N. embargoes.

Menem was placed under house arrest in June but released in November after Argentina's Supreme Court ruled prosecutors failed to prove he led the conspiracy.

Switzerland's own investigation, however, is continuing.

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