BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Former Argentine President Carlos Menem failed to appear Thursday at the opening of his trial for allegedly conspiring to derail an investigation into the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires.
Lawyers for 85-year-old Menem, who is charged alongside 12 co-defendants including his former intelligence chief and a former federal judge, cited health problems as the reason for his absence.
Menem, who was president from 1989 to 1999, has repeatedly denied the accusations against him.
"He has a health problem which, on the advice of his doctor, requires complete rest," Menem's lawyer Omar Daer told reporters outside the court.
The trial is likely to center on how and why Menem, whose parents immigrated to Argentina from Syria, and his co-accused might have sought to thwart early investigations into the deadliest terrorist attack ever carried out on Argentine soil.
Argentine authorities have long suspected that Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah militia were behind the attack, which killed 85 people at the community center, known by the acronym AMIA for the Argentina Israelite Mutual Association.
No one has ever been convicted of the truck-bombing and Iran vigorously denies any role.
The trial of Menem comes seven months after the unsolved murder of a prosecutor, Alberto Nisman, who accused current President Cristina Fernandez of plotting to whitewash Iran's involvement in the AMIA center bombing.
Nisman's mysterious death sparked a frenzy of conspiracy theories and for many Argentines weary of corruption and impunity, laid bare a deep-seated culture of intimidation and meddling in the country's courts.
"Argentine society is waiting for a response based on the real truth, while those that are here today did everything they could to prevent that," Sergio Burstein, head of an association for survivors and family and friends of victims, told reporters outside the court.
"It will be difficult to break the code of silence."
The trial of Menem is expected to last for months.
(Reporting by Juliana Castilla and Juan Bustamante; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Bernadette Baum)