Cemetery attacks irk Argentine Jews

BUENOS AIRES — Following two recent cemetery desecrations, Argentine Jewish leaders have called for stiffer criminal penalties for those convicted of that crime.

The president of the Argentine Jewish umbrella organization DAIA, Ruben Beraja, called on the government to classify cemetery attacks as hate crimes.

Under current law, attacks against cemeteries are classified as "vandalism against private property." But there are no penalties to reflect the racist motives behind the attacks.

Beraja issued the call for a new law during an emotional ceremony Sunday to repudiate two attacks against Jewish cemeteries located near Buenos Aires on Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve.

On Dec. 24, 66 tombs at the La Tablada cemetery were destroyed.

One week later, 22 tombstones were destroyed at the Ciudadela cemetery.

In the wake of the attacks, the Buenos Aires provincial police assigned 1,000 additional officers to protect Jewish institutions.

Buenos Aires' new civilian police chief, along with Jewish officials and opposition politicians, are blaming disgruntled former police officers for the two attacks.

Luis Lugones, a lawyer who was recently appointed to reform the capital's notoriously corrupt police force, said the point of the attacks was to "cause chaos and instability in the force."

He reportedly promised Jewish leaders that he would propose a special law to punish those who destroy tombstones.

"The attackers will be found and punished," he said.

Beraja shared Lugones' suspicions. "We believe that former policemen or people hired by policemen carried out both attacks against our cemeteries," he said.

Members of Buenos Aires' police force have been suspected of involvement in the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center, which killed 86 people and wounded at least 300 others. But no suspects have been charged and the crime remains unsolved.

After years of investigation into corruption, the province's governor took a number of steps in early December to reform the force, including the dismissal of 300 precinct lieutenants.

The newspaper Pagina 12 recently quoted a former lieutenant announcing "reprisals" to protest the changes in the force.

"Former cops will not lay down. They shall hit. They will rob banks and attack Jews," the unnamed lieutenant told the paper.

Police sources said in an interview that the group, the Buenos Aires Movement, is directed by some of the former lieutenants.

"They are out now, but they have friends still in the force that will protect them, that will look the other way," one of the sources said.