Argentinas justice chief once joined a neo-Nazi group

BUENOS AIRES — The Argentine minister of justice, Rodolfo Barra, is at the center of a growing scandal involving his alleged anti-Semitic past — and the prestige of the local judiciary.

Jewish officials here, at first reluctant to speak out on the issue, are now coming forward with questions and concerns.

After being accused by the local magazine Noticias of belonging in his youth to an extremist, anti-Semitic group, Barra answered with a paid newspaper advertisement.

In his ad, Barra quotes a 1937 papal encyclical against Nazism and says he rejects "any racist ideology."

According to the just-published story, when he was 14, in 1962-63, Barra belonged to UNES, the student branch of the extremist right-wing group Tacuara.

Tacuara carried out hundreds of anti-Semitic attacks in the 1950s and 1960s, including the murder of Jewish lawyer Alberto Alterman, several episodes of vandalism against synagogues and a racist riot in this city's Jewish neighborhood.

As justice minister, Barra has been directly responsible for the investigation of the unsolved bombings in Buenos Aires of the Israeli Embassy in 1992 and of the Jewish community headquarters in 1994.

Barra denied belonging "to the group shown in the photographs published by the local media." He was referring to a black-and-white photograph showing a group of teenagers around a table with their right arms held out in a Nazi-style salute.

The photo shows a young Barra standing in the middle of the group with his arm held high and stiff.

Barra said in his ad that he never belonged to any organization that "I could perceive, with the experience and knowledge of a 14-year-old, was Nazi."

But Tuesday, Ruben Beraja, the president of the Argentine Jewish umbrella organization DAIA, said he had talked to Barra, who "admitted belonging to UNES when he was 14 years old, but said he quit the group when he was 15."

Reactions from local Jewish officials were quiet at first.

On Saturday, Luis Steimberg, vice president of DAIA, said, "I do not consider it proved that Barra was a Nazi in his youth."

On Monday, Beraja raised the subject during the weekly meeting of DAIA's executive assembly.

"We have to follow this issue closely," Beraja told the assembly. "Barra's explanations are ambiguous and unsatisfactory, but we have to be careful not to be entrapped in the fractional fights within the government."

"I am trying to clearly determine if that teenage militant was truly left behind by the grown-up politician the minister is today," said Beraja, who said DAIA's executive committee would discuss the issue in the near future.

While other Jewish officials refused to comment publicly on Barra's past, many said privately that they were "revolted" by the revelations.

The Argentine media flayed Barra, calling the revelations "one more scandal tarnishing the image of the Argentine judiciary."

In an editorial Tuesday, the local English-language newspaper, The Buenos Aires Herald, said, "If the strength of a judicial system works only if recognized and accepted by the people, it is anyone's guess how the reputation of the Justice Ministry stands following the exposure of Minister Barra's Nazi past."

The Herald said that "the ministry is under suspicion" and called for Barra's dismissal.

According to the newspaper, the revelations "cast serious doubts on the impartiality, skill and independence with which Barra can head the ministry investigating the terrorist attacks on the Israeli Embassy and the AMIA building."

So far no one has been arrested and charged with those attacks, and Argentinian Jews have criticized the pace of investigations into the bombings.