March 18, 2004
Geneva: Cash-strapped Argentina needs more help from rich nations to track tens of millions of dollars allegedly stashed abroad by former President Carlos Menem and his associates, the country’s justice minister said Thursday.
Noting Switzerland’s cooperation in two cases related to Menem’s 1989-1999 rule, Gustavo Beliz said he hoped neighboring France would likewise act soon to investigate claims of accounting irregularities and bribes involving an Argentine subsidiary of the French defense firm Thales.
“It’s not just a question of getting the money back,” Beliz said. “Tracing the route taken by the money will enable us to get to the heart of corruption in our country. We expect developed countries to help us.”
French justice authorities said they had no immediate comment.
Beliz, who also is Argentina’s security and human rights minister, spoke to reporters on the sidelines of the annual meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva.
Argentina’s national audit office believes the Thales subsidiary – Thales Spectrum – inflated consultancy fees and other costs to disguise $100 million in illegal revenues, Beliz said. Investigators also believe it paid $25 million in bribes to government officials to win a 1997 contract to run Argentina’s radio frequency, cell phone and cable television spectrums, he said.
The Argentine government scrapped the 15-year deal – worth $500 million – in January, claiming Thales Spectrum had failed to make promised investments.
Menem has consistently denied corruption allegations, saying they are politically motivated.
Bank accounts belonging to Menem and his associates – containing just under $10 million – have been frozen in Switzerland for the past 2½ years, as Swiss authorities investigate two separate cases.
Argentine authorities in 2002 asked for Swiss help over allegations that Menem took $10 million to cover up Iran’s alleged role in the 1994 bombing of a Buenos Aires Jewish center.
Menem allegedly received the money in return for him agreeing to say that there was no evidence that Iran was linked to the bombing, which claimed 85 lives. Iran has denied any involvement in the attack.
Menem also has dismissed these claims.
In November, Swiss investigators said that they had found no bank accounts that show Menem received money from Iran. Swiss authorities have on several occasions pressed Argentine prosecutors to provide more evidence to back their claims, saying judicial assistance hinges on this.
Switzerland also is investigating an alleged scam to breach a global arms embargo.
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 a U.N. ban.
Argentine justice officials visited Switzerland last month and Beliz said he was “satisfied” with Swiss efforts. He acknowledged that Argentina had in the past sent “contradictory messages” about its seriousness in tracking ill-gotten money, but said this had now changed.