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Argentina Bombing Trial Begins - 2001-09-25

The trial of 20 men believed to have played a role in the deadliest peacetime attack on Argentine soil started Monday under tight security. Victims' families and government officials are hopeful the trial will lead to those they believe masterminded the deadly 1994 bombing that killed 86 people.

The 15 former policemen and five civilians on trial were allegedly part of a stolen car ring which delivered a van to the terrorists eight days before an explosion in front of the Argentine-Israeli Mutual Aid Association. None are charged with direct involvement in the bombing of the building that was a symbol of Argentina's Jewish community. However, justice department officials and prosecutors have expressed hope that the trial will see surprise testimony from witnesses and defendants alike.

Carlo Alberto Telleldin is one of the people prosecutors and family members hope will give revealing testimony. The 40-year-old Mr. Telleldin, the head of the lucrative stolen car ring, allegedly rigged the van used in the attack before delivering it to others.

Justice Ministry officials have said witnesses needing protection would be placed into a witness protection program. According to officials, 100 people have come forward who want protection.

Juan Jose Ribelli, a 45-year-old former ranking police official, is another key defendant. Mr. Ribelli is accused of protecting the stolen car ring in return for bribes. Mr. Ribelli is also accused of being the point man who received the van from Telleldin and delivered it to the terrorists. Mr. Ribelli has maintained his innocence.

Mr. Ribelli, Mr. Telleldin and three other ranking police officers face 25 years to life if convicted by the three-judge panel. The other fifteen defendants face maximum sentences between 10 and 20 years.

Both the prosecutors and investigating judge have said they've seen evidence that would link sponsor countries, Iran in particular, to the case. Iran has denied any involvement in the 1994 attack or the 1992 bombing of the Israeli embassy in Argentina that killed 22 people.

Some speculate the attack was in retaliation for Argentina's participation in the international coalition that fought to remove Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991. Argentina sent four warships to participate in a naval blockade, making it the only Latin American country to have participated in the Gulf War.

While time has worked to fade the memories of many Argentines, the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington helped revive the images of horror that Argentina lived through in 1994.

Eamon Mullen, one of the lead prosecutors in the case said, in Argentina "we have a strong tendency to forget, but the images from September 11 brought back seven years of history."

The trial, coming so soon on the heels of the U.S. attacks, is sure to draw worldwide attention. A dozen or so international observers have come to watch the proceedings. Leonard Cole, the chairman of the New York-based Jewish Council for Public Affairs is one of the foreign observers at the trial. As Mr. Cole pointed out, "the Argentine government and its justice system surely should be aware that millions and millions of people around the planet will be particularly interested in what is happening here."