Ex-Argentine president joins campaign to expose junta’s anti-Semitic past

More than 30 years after he was kidnapped and tortured by secret police in Buenos Aires, Argentine banker Eduardo Saiegh has an unlikely partner in his fight to convict former government leaders on charges of anti-Semitic discrimination and state terrorism: the government itself.

Last month, Eduardo Duhalde, Argentina’s secretary of human rights and a former president, joined Saiegh, who is Jewish, as a co-complainant in the case. That puts a member of the country’s current government on the side of an investigation of its former leaders, including an ex-finance minister and a head of Argentina’s Central Bank, on charges of crimes against humanity.

It all stems from the events surrounding eight days in the fall of 1980 when Saiegh, the owner of a major bank in Argentina, was detained by police and allegedly tortured and encouraged to sign away the rights to his bank. Eventually he did.

Just two days later, Argentina’s Central Bank transferred $7 million in airline shares from Saiegh’s bank, according to Morton Rosenthal, the former director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Latin American Affairs department, who has been working on the case since the early 1990s.

Many viewed the incident as part of a campaign by government officials to oust Jews from the country’s major banks. Until Duhalde joined Saiegh’s campaign, however, that fact was never acknowledged publicly by Argentina’s government.

It represents a significant milestone in the government’s recognition of its anti-Semitic past, Rosenthal said.

“His complaint is now their complaint,” Rosenthal said of the government. “They called for the arrest of these people.”

Though the financial deal, which occurred during the military junta that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983, led to the prosecution of some members of the army, the non-military personnel who served as the plan’s architects were never fully brought to task, according to Rosenthal.

Saiegh’s campaign aims to change that.

“The civilians, who were major beneficiaries, enjoyed immunity from prosecution,” Rosenthal said. “The government is taking actions to lift this immunity, even though 30 years have passed.”

Saiegh says he has not forgotten the horrors of his week in captivity or the silent promise he made himself in the fall of 1980.

“It was a Friday night, I was free, and I vowed to myself that I will fight the rest of my life to repair this situation,” he recalled. “I believed it was very, very deep moral pain. The moral pain is worse than the physical pain because the physical pain passes after time.”

Saiegh says he has no doubts why he was targeted.

“It happened because I am Jewish. If were from the traditional economic establishment,” he said, it never would have happened.

The transparent day of reckoning provided by a public trial would teach Argentine anti-Semites and lawbreakers that there are consequences for criminal action, Saiegh says.

More important, he adds, a legal victory—with the government itself as a co-complainant—would serve as a rebuke to the notion that judges and prosecutors can be bought in Argentina.

“They bought justice in every situation it was possible,” he said. “With the money they buy impunity. What will be the future of this country if that continues?”

Justice in Argentina often is not easily achieved.

In the case of the country’s most notorious tragedy involving Jews, the 1994 bombing in Buenos Aires of the AMIA Jewish community center, which killed 85, the investigation has been marred by delays and prosecutorial misconduct. The perpetrators of the bombing have never been arrested, though Iranian officials have been implicated in the attack.

The bombing’s Argentine suspects, many of them members of the Buenos Aires Police Department, were cleared of all charges in September 2004. One year later, the judge heading up the case was impeached on charges of serious mishandling of the investigation.

Saiegh, too, has faced significant challenges in his crusade. Over the past three decades he has seen some small victories, but nothing on the scale of the endorsement by Duhalde, the former president.

In 1999, the political umbrella organization of Argentina’s Jewish community, known by the acronym DAIA, took Saiegh’s case to a judge in Spain. The judge, Baltasar Garzon, came out strongly against the Central Bank’s actions, noting that “the violent action against the Jewish community in Argentina during the military dictatorship was something planned beforehand and institutionalized.”

However, Garzon’s findings were not recognized in Argentina.

In 2004, Duhalde wrote a letter in which he acknowledged that the facts of Saiegh’s case matched a pattern of state terrorism and unlawful appropriation of property against the country’s Jewish community.

Rosenthal says it was an important turning point because it enabled Saiegh to begin pursuing a criminal complaint as opposed to simply working within the confines of the civil system—an action he filed in 2009.

Once a judge formally accepts Duhalde’s decision to formally join Saiegh’s suit as a co-complainant, they will have the ability to call witnesses, launch a full investigation and ultimately proceed to trial.

Pursuing his case is still a risky endeavor, Saiegh says; he has had round-the-clock police protection since filing the 2009 suit. But to hear the banker tell it, there’s something more important at play here than his own safety: the future of the Argentine Jewish community.

“With discrimination, you can’t make a country. You need integration,” Saiegh said. “That’s something we need change for the Jews in Argentina.”

Who is in the military junta ruling Egypt? More unknowns than knowns

One guy we know, and we’re pretty sure he’s not in charge.

The other guy we don’t know so well, and it looks like he might be in charge.

The other three guys—who knows?

The five figures comprising Egypt’s Supreme Military Council are commanding the rapt attention of a world already transfixed by the unrest that last week unseated President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s autocratic leader for 30 years.

They appeared on state television in a pose typical of the region’s leaders: sitting along a table, ramrod straight and inscrutable. They are now running the Egyptian show, although they have promised speedy elections to replace Mubarak and the parliament they dissolved.

The Sphinx-like TV pose accrued a Sphinx-like riddle in the wake of the sudden transfer of power: Who exactly are they?

Extraordinarily, the Egyptian sources routinely tapped by Westerners for inside information were responding to queries this week with a shrug emblematic of the degree of how much has changed in Egypt. They don’t seem to know much either.

Ehud Ya’ari, an Arab affairs expert with Israel’s Channel 2, said it was because Mubarak for years had played his cards close to his vest. He and a small circle of advisers were the only interlocutors with Israel and the West.

“We have a big problem here: We don’t know the Egyptian army,” Ya’ari told a conference call convened by the Jewish Federations of North America. “The Egyptian army was kept by Mubarak outside all dealing with Israel except for liaison officers in the Sinai. Israelis do not know the Egyptian generals who now form what I would describe as a military junta.”

For the record they are Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the defense minister; Lt. Gen. Sami Hafez Enan, the military chief of staff; Vice Adm. Mohab Mamish, commander of the Navy; Air Marshal Rada Mahmoud Hafez Mohamed, commander of the Air Force; and Lt. Gen. Abd El Aziz Seif-Eideen, commander of the Air Defense.

The two figures emerging as the ones to watch are Tantawi and Enan. They both are known to have served in wars against Israel, in 1967 and 1973. What they did, however, is hardly known, much less the stuff of legend.

Mubarak, by contrast, made his name between those two wars when he resisted Soviet pressure, as Air Force commander, to run raids over the Sinai. That made his reputation as a man wise enough to pick his battles—one that served him well until his fruitless effort to resist calls to resign.

Tantawi, who is in his mid-70s, already has been dubbed “Mubarak’s poodle,” although this might derive simply from his having served in the outgoing government. He is, in any case, a known quantity.

“We know a lot more about Tantawi than Enan in terms of roles they played in the former regime and this regime,” said J. Scott Carpenter, the deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs from 2004 to 2007 and now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

What is known about Tantawi suggests that he is not in control, although he is nominally the most senior officer on the council.

“The officers, from a number of generals and colonels on down, don’t hold him in high regard,” Carpenter said.

Tantawi, trained by the Soviets, is seen as the old guard by a younger generation of officers trained by the United States to be forward thinking, according to Joel Rubin, an analyst with the National Security Network who during the last Bush administration headed the State Department’s Egypt desk.

“He’s perceived as a yes man to Mubarak—not charismatic, not someone perceived as leading a rebellion,” Rubin said.

Tantawi was visible but did not make himself known, Carpenter said.

“I’ve only met him a couple of times,” he said, “and both times I have been struck how he’s not dynamic, hard to converse with, not forthcoming—he doesn’t seem to get it.”

Worse, he apparently had a tin ear when it came to cultivating loyalty.

“He’s mishandled some of the relations he’s had with senior military officers, being late with salary payments, holiday bonuses,” Carpenter said.

Rubin said Enan, believed to be between 64 and 68, had better relations with U.S. officials. He was the point man for military relations with the United States, meaning he handled the requests for equipment through the $1.3 billion in U.S. defense assistance Egypt gets annually—that is believed to comprise as much as 80 percent of the country’s materiel.

Enan was in Washington on just such a consultation with his Pentagon counterparts when the protests erupted on Jan. 25.

“He understands our culture, he’s someone who’s seen as responsible and responsive,” Rubin said.

Carpenter said that was the impression he got from the Americans he spoke to, but he noted that outside of the interactions on defense assistance, not much else was known about Enan.

“Our military perceives him as thoughtful and very active,” Carpenter said. “He was one of the people they were talking to during the run-up” to Mubarak’s ouster, “when they thought there would be real violence.”

One narrative, as related by Rubin, has it that Enan clashed with Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman over who controlled the transition. Under the Suleiman plan, Mubarak would have remained as a purely titular president.

Suleiman had the upper hand until Mubarak, in a defiant Feb. 10 speech, went off script and insisted he was keeping some powers. That led to his formal ouster—and Enan emerging triumphant. Suleiman is now out of the picture.

Carpenter heard the same story, but from American officials. From Egyptian interlocutors he heard that Enan had argued within the military for a tougher line against protesters. The fact that the military held back, according to this narrative, suggests that Enan was overruled.

But by whom?

“No one knows,” Carpenter said.